By Roy Smiles
Everyone has a favourite Goon line, I’m sure. Or at least everyone over a certain age. Neddie Seagoon fronts up to the customs desk: “Do you have anything to declare, Sir?” Neddie: “What a wonderful day it is today.” Comedy is a funny thing, though. It often doesn’t transplant very smoothly, neither across the years nor over the oceans, and there are Goon fans and people who can’t stand the Goons everywhere. It’s pretty clear though that without the anarchic brilliance of the Goons, Britain might not have had Monty Python, and without Monty Python there might not have been the Goodies, and so on, right up to the repetitive bad taste of Little Britain. None of these programs, however, has contained such a huge number of one-liners, the breathless madness of plots, the sheer delight in the quirks and craziness of language, year after year after year. So thank you Roy Smiles for writing this play about Spike Milligan’s writing of and adventures in the surreal world of the Goons. And thank you to this brilliant cast which made this the funniest and the most moving night out in the theatre in recent memory.
It’s hard to realise that Milligan was writing the Goon scripts over a period of nine years, for most of the 1950s, with a little help along the way from people like Eric Sykes, and much ad-libbing from his fellow Goons. England was in the grip of rationing still, it was an austere post-war country with high unemployment, disaffected and damaged ex-soldiers, the grim realities of whole bombed-out city blocks and thick air pollution from coal fires. Into this fairly bleak world in 1951 the BBC suddenly launched the radio program called at first Crazy People, then, by the end of year, simply The Goon Show. By 1953 the shows were beginning to have a single plot each time, so that people could just mention a title, say, The Affair of the Lone Banana, The Great Tuscan Salami Scandal or Ten Snowballs that Shook the World, in order to conjure up a whole half-hour of mayhem. During all this time Milligan’s mental health was precarious, damaged by the brutal horrors of war and the loneliness of a disrupted Indian childhood: “we gave India three things, railways, rifles and herpes.” He had had his first breakdown in 1952 when he tried to kill Peter Sellers with a potato peeler, and from then on it was a bumpy ride to get the scripts both written and recorded.
Roy Smiles teases his audience with a non-chronological vision from inside the madhouse, or loony bin, of Milligan’s mind in which his three fellow comedians – his rival and equally comic genius Peter Sellers, the loyal dependable Harry “Neddie” Secombe with the deep-chested and thrilling voice, and Wallace Greenslade, announcer and ringmaster extraordinaire — all appear to him in various guises which both suggest plotlines and dialogue and play out the tensions of their conflicting roles in the show. The set is simple: two BBC microphones in front of the curtain, and behind the curtain a vast, crypt-like space receding upstage in which the hospital iron bed and a metal desk for his doctor (alias Greenslade) are the only props. Two doors lead to the outside world but usually only allow entry to the delusions of his mind. The chipped institutional green tiles and peeling paint represent the nightmare of an antiquated and crumbling health system. This might sound as if the play is unrelievedly sombre, and this is where the real strength of it lies. At the same time as you are having belly laughs at the brilliant one-liners and the side-splitting antics of the four characters, another part of you is registering the pathos of Milligan’s dilemma and his fragility. It says much for Geoff Kelso’s portrayal of Milligan that he never lets things slide into sentimentality, yet even at some of the funniest moments a puzzled frown or a slight grimace indicates the pain. As Greenslade as the doctor makes a mildly amusing comment, Kelso snorts, “A shrink with a crappy sense of humour. It’s going to be a long breakdown.” It’s as if he finds it impossible to suppress the quick, throwaway comment. His comic muse is insatiable, both enemy and necessary friend. “Not another bloody flashback,” he laments. It’s a brilliant and subtle performance.
While Kelso spends most of the play in his pyjamas (regulation stripe), Jonathan Biggins as Sellers and David James as Secombe have a vast number of costume changes as they play out both themselves and the figments of Milligan’s imagination. Biggins particularly sometimes changes so rapidly that you’re left wondering who the fifth character is. Mind you, the first change where he appears at the door in bowler hat and nothing else except an A4-size folded newspaper held over the genitals asking if Milligan knows a good tailor, doesn’t require too much finesse except to maintain a non-wobbly-buttocks walk as he turns his back and exits with great dignity. The arrival of the midget leprechauns, first Sellers, then Secombe and finally Greenslade (Tony Harvey) as the Jewish Irish leprechaun Shamus Bernstein — “they’re multiplying like bloody rabbits” — is the high point of the first act. They must have worn powerful kneepads, because they stomped around the stage, with huge golden shoes appearing from under their green gowns (to cover the back part of the legs), encouraging Milligan as they all outdid each other with the Irish jokes, “I applied for the Irish navy, but the dinghy was full,” “Have you heard about the Irishman who wore two condoms? To be sure. To be sure.” I wish I could have remembered more of them. The trouble is that you are laughing so much that it’s easy to miss some of the great lines.
Milligan’s rivalry with Sellers is one of Smiles’s major themes, with Milligan reassuring himself that Sellers (the comic genius who never speaks in his own voice, his own sign of manic depression) cannot “do” him. It’s somehow a sign of Milligan’s own reality, just as Secombe always does the raspberry (the radio sound effects) to prove he is real. The pain of comedy is ever present with them all, and Milligan finds that he can almost relax when he is in the straitjacket. The various manifestations of the past in Milligan’s mind are prolific and with one exception are all very funny. Biggins is amazing as Sellers as a manic psychiatrist-cum-Dr Strangelove figure complete with red pompadour quiff, smoky glasses and black mechanical hand which he manipulates in a dazzling display of rhythm and dexterity and whom Milligan attacks, throws on the bed and attempts to feel if his “dick has a helmet” because he knows he’s really Sellers. An absurd crazy sequence, and you could never take folk dancing seriously again after seeing Biggins and James as Morris dancers. One of the strangest manifestations, though, is when a tall woman who is obviously Greenslade (Harvey) in drag walks on through the vaulted upstage area, receiving the expected giggle from the audience, only to play the scene absolutely straight as Milligan’s wife June who is leaving him and taking the children. His anguished cry of “I will not die here. I will see my children grow” is a measure of how deftly Smiles has shown us the pain of being Milligan.
The final sequence is a new Goon script (by Smiles), Journey to the Centre of Milligan’s Brain or The Search for Milligan’s Marbles, where they take the number eleven bus to the epicentre and then try to trace the marbles to Greece — we took theirs, now we’ll search for mine. In the process Milligan has to kill off all his characters: Hercules Grytpype-Thynne, a sleazy, well-educated and scheming cad, is killed by gay Vikings; Major Dennis Bloodnok, a corrupt military cad, is killed by killer bees; with Eccles, Bluebottle, etc, etc, all purged. Hardest to kill is the lovable Neddie Seagoon, but Milligan finally manages it, they all sing the Ying Tong Song (idle-i-po), and then to the tune of Lili Marlene, Kelso sings about the men who survived Italy, the lucky D-Day soldiers.
And there you are, a brilliant piece of theatre, brilliantly performed, and if you want to learn more, listen to Radio National at 5.30 on a Friday morning. It’s worth it, and you can always go back to sleep afterwards.
Directed by Richard Cottrell
Playing until 8 September (Tues at 6.30pm; Wed – Sat at 7.30pm, Wed matinee at 1pm, Sat matinee at 2pm)
Duration : 2hrs 20mins (including interval 20mins).