BWW Review: A SOCKFUL OF CUSTARD, Pleasance Theatre
Spike (there's no need for a surname is there?) would have been 100 years old six weeks ago, but, as he famously said, he told you he was ill.
These days, he'd be described as a "troubled funny man", but back in the 70s, my mother used to say, on one of his numerous television appearances, "He's a bit touched isn't he?" Her instincts about Stuart Hall and Jimmy Savile proved true in time - but she always liked Spike.
His comedy was madcap, occasionally racist to a degree that shocked even then and rooted in a love of life that trumped his demons and the self-appointed arbiters of good taste. I can still recite the poems that spoke to every schoolkid in a way that no other poetry could; I can recall his brilliantly funny Q8 "Good evening... and expenses" sketch brutally satirising the likes of David Frost and Alan Whicker; and you can still watch the Parkinson interviews on youtube, Parky treading softly around Spike's fragile ego and bringing the best out of him.
Chris Larner and Jeremy Stockwell take this raw material and construct a curious show that celebrates Spike but never quite gets to the heart of the man. Far too much time is spent on meta stuff about the show's construction - okay, I know it's an attempt to mirror Spike's own dismantling and reconstruction of comedy, but it really drags. There's too much too of the actors themselves - we've come to hear about Spike after all.
The best moments come when Stockwell contorts his face into that unique laugh/cry that was the outward manifestation of Spike's inner bipolar disorder. The years simply melt away and Spike - vulnerable, hilarious, bonkers - is there in front of us. It's not really an impersonation, it's more an actor capturing the very essence of a man. It's baffling why we get so little of it as it's truly spine-tingling.
The show's potential is revealed in such moments - there's good, understated stuff too on how Spike's wartime experience may have triggered a PTSD that never really left him - but the show struggles to find its focus, fellow Goons, Sellers, Secombe and Bentine introduced, but disposed of in the blinking of an eye.
Spike was a whirlwind of contradiction, comedy and craziness - that we only glimpse at the range and depth of those aspects of his personality represents something of a missed opportunity.