Review: SPIKE, Salisbury Playhouse

Fabulously fast-paced and funny tribute to Spike Milligan

By: Oct. 05, 2022
Review: SPIKE, Salisbury Playhouse

Review: SPIKE, Salisbury Playhouse In a fabulously fast-paced and funny tribute to Spike Milligan, writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman affectionately convey how the extraordinary Anglo-Irishman creates The Goon Show.

It wasn't an easy romp to victory, however, for the hugely successful British radio comedy that ran from 1951 to 1960. In this well-written and well-choreographed (tin hats off to director Paul Hart) production, we see Milligan do battle on two fronts.

First, he has to contend with idiot World War Two officers during the North African campaign and at Monte Cassino - where he suffers shellshock after being wounded in action.

Then in the 1950s, the anarchic absurdist fights on the home front. Ironically, his foes are the same type of pompous idiot jobsworths, this time under the guise of BBC managers who don't appreciate his crazy brand of humour.

Cleverly, Hislop and Newman link scenes from the BBC, Grafton Arms pub and Milligan's home with battlefield skirmishes. They show the influence of the war in Milligan's ground-breaking work - from references to the NAAFI and fictional military idiot Major Bloodnok, to lots of bangs and explosions - without descending into misery memoir.

It's a joyous evening in the company of an admirable cast, kicking off with beige cardigan wearing Margaret Cabourn-Smith's Foley artist giving us a sound effects demonstration. She also pops up as a secretary who's way more in tune with new technology than her bosses, pointing out the misogyny in the Reithian air at the time.

Excellent Robert Wilfort appears suitably beleaguered as overworked and underpaid Milligan, who wrote an astounding 250 scripts for The Goon Show in a decade. He received less pay than chatty chappy colleague Harry Secombe (warmly played by Jeremy Lloyd) and Patrick Warner's silky smooth-talking Peter Sellers. The BBC classified Secombe and Sellers as performers, so ridiculously, they received higher fees than chief writer/performer Milligan.

As a moronic BBC executive who gives Milligan a hard time, but then does a U-turn when the show attracts nearly two million listeners, a very convincing Robert Mountford steals a number of key scenes.

And yet, not everyone at the BBC was a baddy. James Mack doubles up gamely as producers Denis Main-Wilson and Peter Eton. Although both were often frustrated by Milligan's lack of discipline and tendency to miss deadlines, they also recognised his talent and the exciting new class of comedy he'd invented.

Other members of the cast worth noting are Ellie Morris, who does the best she can with the more limited role of Milligan's wife June, and Peter Dukes as a very formal BBC announcer.

Spike was first commissioned by the BBC for television to mark the 2018 centenary of Milligan's birth. Luckily for theatre audiences, it was transposed to the stage instead.

For this is pure theatre, with very simple, but effective sets and costumes (Katie Lias) and terrific lighting by designer Rory Beaton. Instead of lavishing money on grand scenery and props, straightforward backdrops with sketches indicating locations, a wooden doorframe and a pared-down recording studio more than do the trick.

Sound design by Tim Marshall is spot on, conveying the experimental and imaginative world of early radio, and Tayo Akinbode's music draws us deeper into Milligan's jazz-loving character.

This is a marvellous portrayal of a satirical pioneer ­known as the "godfather of alternative comedy" by a new generation of comedians, including John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eddie Izzard and Paul Merton.

It doesn't matter if you're familiar with Milligan's work, or not. There are plenty of jokes that hold up well after 70 years, and a good time is had by all in a silly and surreal show that lets you forget about strikes, energy prices and all those idiots trying to run the world.

Spike is at Salisbury Playhouse until October 8, then touring

Photo Credit: Pamela Raith Photography