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REVIEW: SPIKE at The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

Spike at The Everyman Theatre

By Ian Hislop & Nick Newman
The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
Wednesday, 7 September 2022

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Spike Milligan’s prodigious imagination entertained millions, changed the landscape of British comedy, and inspired future generations of comedians.  Were it not for Spike, there would be no Monty Python, no Pete and Dud, and no Eddie Izzard (who called Milligan “The godfather of alternative comedy”).  Spike was a comic genius, but also an erratic one: my dad saw him perform at the Wigan Hippodrome, where he paced up and down, muttering to himself, and was eventually booed off.  A similar audience response, in a scene set in Coventry, appears in this affectionate bio-drama by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman.

Spike had bipolar disorder, which affected his personal and professional relationships and informed his work.  He was unstable, argumentative and unreliable, often delivering scripts late.  His frenetic comedy was both a compulsion and a coping mechanism: a manic outpouring of inner turmoil and a counterbalance to his frequent bouts of depression (during one of which he threatened to kill Goon Show co-star Peter Sellers with a potato peeler).

The Second World War cast a long shadow over 1950s Britain: Spike had suffered ‘shell shock’ in the battle for Monte Cassino, and the play draws an explicit connection between Spike’s wartime experiences and the explosions that pepper his scripts; Goon Show producers Dennis Main Wilson and Peter Eton had both served in the armed forces; and the post-war BBC was run by the officer class and staffed by creative-but-insubordinate footsoldiers like Gunner Milligan.

The dramatic engine of the play is the conflict between the complacent Beeb and spiky Spike: between giving listeners what they ought to want and what they actually want; between conformity and subversion; between kowtowing to authority and calling the heir to the throne a “little grovelling bastard”.  No wonder the play’s provisional title was Milligan’s War.

 "Spike" begins promisingly, with a funny and charming prelude in which BBC foley artist Janet (the ever-excellent Margaret Cabourn-Smith) proudly demonstrates a selection of ingeniously improvised sound effects.  There follows a succession of biographical events that hardly amount to a drama.

Yes, there’s interpersonal conflict: between wayward genius Milligan (Robert Wilfort) and the stick-in-the-mud BBC (personified by Robert Mountford); between underappreciated, underpaid Milligan and suave, popular Sellers (Patrick Warner); and between neglectful Milligan and his first wife June (Ellie Morris).  Yes, there’s intrapersonal conflict, in the form of Spike’s repeated struggles with his demons, but there’s seldom much at stake.  Spike’s most harmonious relationship is with co-star Harry Secombe, whose giggling essence Jeremy Lloyd captures perfectly.

In telling Spike’s story, the writers and director Paul Hart have cleverly reproduced the organised chaos of a Goon Show script.  It’s notoriously difficult to dramatise writers, sitting alone, writing; however, the accompaniment of The Flight of the Bumblebee to Spike’s frenzied typing is an ingeniously effective solution.  But unfortunately, in comparison to the Goon Show, the rewards of "Spike" are otherwise scant.  Spike’s celebrated one-liners come fast and furious, but often fall flat.  Consequently, Spike is reduced to a purveyor of facetious gags and lame puns, and the Goons to a bunch of sniggering schoolboys.  The play fails to capture the subversive thrill of the original, except when the cast performs an excerpt from Series 5, episode 2 of The Goon Show (“Nineteen Eighty-Five”).  Suddenly, the room  lights up.

In 1999, BBC viewers voted Spike the funniest person of the last 1,000 years.  On the basis of this play, anyone unfamiliar with his work would struggle to understand why the award didn’t go to Henry II’s jester, Roland the Farter.

Running time: 2¼ hours (including interval)
Spike runs at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, until Saturday 10 September 2022

© 2022 Paul Sharples
Explore Gloucestershire
8 September 2022

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