Review: Spike, New Theatre, Cardiff

Andy Howells visits Cardiff’s New Theatre to review the comedy, Spike by Ian Hislop & Nick Newman starring Robert Wilfort, Jeremy Lloyd and Patrick Warner.

I literally cried tears of joy and ached from several belly-laughs as I watched Ian Hislop & Nick Newman’s Spike which opened at Cardiff’s New Theatre on Tuesday evening.  The docudrama is not only a celebration of Spike Milligan’s creative genius, but also a look at the ground-breaking evolution of the radio comedy series, The Goon Show.

Set in the gloom laden austerity of 1950s post-war Britain, Spike displays how people of all ages tuned in to their weekly dosage of madcap mayhem from the BBC Light Programme for another instalment of The Goon Show. As rising stars Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers are projected into celebrity status, fellow Goon and chief writer Spike Milligan finds himself pushing comedic boundaries and testing the patience of the BBC hierarchy.

Writers Hislop and Newman weave events derived from original BBC documentation around excerpts from Spike Milligan’s own Goon Show scripts.  The result, fifty years after the broadcast of The Last Goon Show of All is possibly The Last, Last Goon Show of All, (though I sincerely hope not). Spike places Robert Wilfort as Spike, Jeremy Lloyd as Harry and Patrick Warner as Peter centre stage, as they find their way in the world of showbusiness and project their famous characters, Neddy Seagoon, Major Bloodnock and Eccles, among others onto an unsuspecting nation of radio listeners.

For the present day theatre audience, we laugh at the one-liners, as we witness, with empathy the blood, sweat and tears that Spike endures to achieve perfection behind The Goon Show broadcasts. Fighting censorship from the BBC producers, Spike is also at war with co-star Peter Sellers personality traits and most of all, repercussions of his own World War II experiences (via seamlessly staged flashbacks) that result in much of the inspiration for the explosive elements of The Goon Show. The play reveals how over-work contributed towards an inevitable mental breakdown for Spike, decades before any mental health awareness was given any sort of priority or understanding.

While Spike’s staging beautifully encompasses fast-paced delivery, (including a variety of places for a character to randomly pop-up), a giant radiogram provides a backdrop for a BBC recording studio, executive office, The Grafton Arms and Spike’s home. The radiogram itself, occasionally creates a televisual experience to provide a secondary stage for characters to appear set away from the scene. Is it a figment of Spike’s imagination, a Technicolor tv screen or both? Meanwhile, the recording studio is magically recreated with BBC radio microphones and a sound effects department, while Margaret Cabourn – Smith provides fun sound effects interjections and demonstrations as Janet.

Robert Wilfort, Jeremy Lloyd and Patrick Warner breathe the necessary vibrancy into the creativity of Milligan, Secombe and Sellers. It’s still the Goons we know and love from radio broadcasts and long-player records (what are those?), but with a human fragility you don’t usually associate with the caricatured original. If anything, these portrayals make you care more for the men behind the laughter. Credit must also go to the brilliant support cast who are the definitive cogs to the big wheels of the show. Robert Mountford, James Mack, Tesni Kujore and Ellie Morris all switch roles and personas at the blink of an eye, and all have their moments which add depth and flow to the unfolding plot.

Spike rounds off with a wonderfully choreographed ensemble-cast performance of Whistle Your Cares Away, proving that seven decades on from the original Goon Show radio broadcasts – ground-breaking comedy never dies.

Long Live The Goons, the good ship Spike and all who sail in him!

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