spike review

Review: Spike, Richmond Theatre

Review: Spike, Richmond Theatre

A brand new comedy on the inner workings behind The Goon Show. Jenny Booth reviews.


Hilarious, vain, mercurial, selfish, perfectionist, spontaneous, chippy, effervescent, shy, paranoid, victim, bully, his own hardest taskmaster, charming, curmudgeonly, imaginative, morose, zany, and constantly raging at authority. It’s impossible to pick a single label to put on Spike Milligan. This comic play by the Private Eye editor Ian Hislop and cartoonist Nick Newman reflects some of the many facets of arguably the most brilliant comedian Britain has ever produced. Their portrait of Spike in his prime, in the years when he was writing the Goon Show as it built an audience of nearly 5 million listeners, depicts a difficult and complex man who couldn’t resist a fight. Conflict seemed to energise him to produce his best work, but it often made him hard to be around – especially for the people who loved him best, his wife June and his fellow Goons, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers, sympathetically played by Ellie Morris, Jeremy Lloyd and Patrick Warner.

Paul Hart’s production plunges us into the relentlessly upbeat world of 1950s BBC Radio Comedy, where budgets were on a shoestring but the radio announcers wore dinner jackets, where almost everyone spoke with clipped, RP vowels and the Beeb middle management consisted of public school-educated, officer types. Exactly the sort of person, in fact, that working class, Anglo-Irish Spike detested, and who disapproved of him right back. Through flashback we learn how Milligan declared war on the breed after his commanding officers showed no sympathy when he suffered shell-shock fighting at Monte Cassino. The play shows the mounting hostilities between Robert Wilfort’s resentful and sarcastic Spike and Robert Mountford’s cartoonishly disdainful BBC executive, who belittles Milligan, ensures he is underpaid and tries to take the Goons off air. Much of this is based on genuine letters between Milligan and the BBC. Milligan has a series of breakdowns, becoming more and more ill; but by the end he has somehow come through it and the Goons have become a national institution, loved even by royalty.

Hislop and Goon superfan Newman have sprinkled fragments of Goon dialogue throughout the script. It’s fascinating to realise just how many of the iconic moments of British comedy – for example, ’Don’t tell him [your name], Pike!”, and “Always look on the bright side of life” – were imagined by Milligan first. An audience member asked in the question and answer session after the show whether Milligan would have liked the play. “I think he’d have hated it,” admitted Hislop, with a disarming grin. But there were two people in the dress circle who begged to differ. “He had quite an ego,” said Jane Milligan, Spike’s daughter, who was sitting next to Sarah Sellers, daughter of Peter. “I think he would have loved it.”

Richmond Theatre, until 12 November

Image: Pamela Raith