YING TONG A WALK WITH THE GOONS
New Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2
Opened 14 February, 2005
****

Round The Horne Revisited has proved such a success that it's now on its third different assemblage of 1960s radio comedy scripts re-created on stage. Initially, Roy Smiles' Ying Tong also directed by Michael Kingsbury, and now also in the West End, after premièring at Leeds last October looks as if it is ploughing the same furrow. Actors representing Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and announcer Wallace Greenslade stand behind a row of old-fashioned BBC microphones, reading from a Goon Show script. The first difference, although not immediately discernible, is that all of the "Goons" material here (apart from individual catchphrases and the like) is written by Smiles. The obvious moment of divergence, though, is when James Clyde's Milligan falls silent and then has a breakdown on mic.

At this point the cleverness of Smiles' writing becomes apparent. Peter McKintosh's claustrophobic "studio" set serves simultaneously as a room in the north London mental hospital to which Milligan was admitted after his major nervous breakdown of 1960. From here on, the reality of the hospital, Milligan's hallucinations, fantasies and flashbacks all interweave, cutting across the decades to create a portrait of what had driven him over the edge.

It's no surprise to find Milligan's condition ascribed to three main factors: his sense of comprehensive unbelonging, as the son of an English mother and an Irish father raised in India; the immediate and ongoing pressures to produce Goons scripts; and the continuing legacy of his first breakdown during the Italian campaign of World War II. Indeed, at times these observations are on the trite side. More often, though, the writing and performances animate these biographical facts.

Clyde is excellent on the self-consciousness in voice and gesture that Milligan regularly used as a defence against too much unmediated breast-baring. Peter Temple, too, catches the cold, ambitious selfishness of Sellers as described by Roger Lewis and other biographers. The good heart of Christian Patterson's Secombe an intermediary and general buffer zone between Milligan and Sellers is feelingly apparent, and that paragon of English probity Jeremy Child alternates as Greenslade and the psychiatrist as well as taking a number of hallucinatory cameos including a Jewish leprechaun. Needle nardle noo, indeed.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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