Spike, review: cosy tribute to a very un-cosy talent

John Dalgleish as Spike Milligan in Spike, at the Watermill Theatre - Pamela Raith
John Dalgleish as Spike Milligan in Spike, at the Watermill Theatre - Pamela Raith

“The Goon Show,” drawls a pretentious critic in Spike, “is essentially shell-shock on radio.” That’s the play’s thesis, too. The explosive anarchy of that 1950s radio series – a comedy touchstone for Spike’s playwrights, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, in their work on Spitting Image – was bound up with the wartime trauma of its mercurial writer, Spike Milligan. For Spike, Spike suggests, the war never really ended; it continued as a war against the world – and, in particular, various uncomprehending BBC stuffed-shirts.

It’s an idea hammered home by Kate Lias’s striking two-tier set design. In one scene, Milligan (John Dalgleish) is in an office – the room suggested by a Milligan-esque doodled backdrop – discussing the show with a pompous BBC executive (Robert Mountford, Goonishly one-dimensional, and very funny). They’re squabbling over sound-effects; Milligan thinks the bomb noises aren’t loud enough. An explosion rings out, and in a flash what seemed to be a solid wall above their heads becomes a window onto no-man’s-land, all smoke and rubble. Later, as Milligan wrestles against overwhelming deadlines, that hill of blasted earth is replaced by a heap of scrunched-up pages.

Laughter in the trenches is a familiar topic for Hislop and Newman, who had a great success at this theatre with their First World War comedy The Wipers Times. I can imagine Spike proving equally popular, at least with anyone old enough to get misty-eyed at the names Eccles and Bluebottle. (Hislop and Newman have said they hope it’ll win over new Goon fans; I’m not confident it will.)

As Milligan, John Dagleish wisely doesn’t attempt a straightforward impression (though his brief imitations of Goon Show characters are spot-on). But he captures Milligan’s restless, furtive physicality; he doesn’t wear his baggy clothes so much as hide inside them, like a turtle in its shell. Compared to his then more famous – and considerably better-paid – Goon Show co-stars, Peter Sellers (George Kemp) and Harry Secombe (Jeremy Lloyd), he’s a man allergic to limelight, though desperate for success.

Milligan feared his obituary would read “wrote The Goon Show and died”, but that’s essentially the obit Spike gives him; his poetry and novels don’t get a look-in. It’s an affectionate, efficient tribute which, by limiting its scope to the 1950s, creates an uplifting plot-arc but can’t help playing into the myth of genius fuelled by madness: we see Milligan in an asylum hospital-bed, begging for a pencil; Milligan typing frantically in time with The Flight of the Bumblebee; Milligan faking his suicide backstage at a gig in Coventry, a joke that mightn’t have been a joke.

James Mack, John Dalgleish and George Kemp in Spike - Pamela Raith
James Mack, John Dalgleish and George Kemp in Spike - Pamela Raith

Hislop and Newman’s breezy desire to keep things light means Spike’s treatment of his mental health problems feels somewhat shallow. They stage the famous incident when Milligan – in a fit of paranoid delusion – broke into Sellers’s house and threatened to kill him with a potato-knife. That often-told anecdote always ends with the same punchline from Sellers: “What are you going to do – peel me?” It’s a good joke, neatly brushing away a complex, troubling moment. Here, it brings down the curtain on act one. A more daring script might have imagined what happened next.

Any Goons fan will enjoy this cosily conventional tribute to a very un-cosy, unconventional talent. But something weirder might have been more in the spirit of Milligan, who died 20 years ago this month. I’d love to see an enterprising theatre producer take on his postapocalyptic fantasia The Bed-Sitting Room, for instance; the world might finally be weird enough to handle it.

Until March 5. Tickets: 01635 46044; watermill.org.uk