Bristol Old Vic
Opened 9 July, 2009

There’s something about the late Spike Milligan’s brand of mayhem that is nigh impossible to capture in a stage portrait. A couple of years ago, comedian Michael Barrymore took on the role in a bioplay in an effort to show that he had his own demons back under control, but ended up only showing how necessary that demonic edge is; before that, Roy Smiles’ Goons play Ying Tong worked by dint of engaging in a bonkers fantasia themed around one of Milligan’s breakdowns. This adaptation of the first four volumes of his war memoirs, alas, falls into the “tries too hard” category.
It is a good idea of adaptors Ben Power and Tim Carroll (who also directs) to structure the evening as a concert party centred around Gunner Milligan’s wartime jazz combo, interspersed with comments from cutout figures of Hitler and Goebbels about the degeneracy of this music. Unfortunately, the renditions here are far too buttoned-up to suggest the hungered-for relief from military discipline. In addition Sholto Morgan, making his professional stage début as Spike, is simply inadequate as a trumpeter; they’ve cut his playing to a bare minimum, but even so, it is obvious that he is up to the mark neither of his fellows onstage nor of the original Milligan.
The same air of effortfulness hangs over the dramatic scenes. A raft of classic Milligan gags are present and correct, right from his initial apology for being months late for induction: “I’ll make up for it, sir, I’ll fight nights as well!” But the gags, especially in Morgan’s wide-eyed, slightly sing-song delivery, are pervaded by a self-consciousness that handicaps them. I do not think we can blame over-familiarity with the material; more likely, humour which was subversive or almost literally anarchic in such a tightly structured military context loses much of its transgressive power when it becomes the point of the evening. Consequently, Milligan’s first breakdown from battle fatigue also forms a less devastating contrast than it should. Matthew Devereaux makes an entertaining batch of officer figures, by dint of playing up the earnestness and letting the material itself lampoon him. But overall, this production (which goes on to Hampstead Theatre and a national tour) would scarcely make a Milligan virgin understand why the man is so beloved.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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