Spike Milligan is in the midst of a breakdown. The pressure to write for the cult-like Goon Show has driven him mad, and now he resides in St Luke’s Hospital, visited by a host of flashbacks and mirages in the guise of his fellow Goons.
Not familiar with the classic radio series? Don’t let that fact put you off seeing this production of Ying Tong (A Walk With The Goons) written by Roy Smiles and performed by The Playhouse – you’ll be surprised just how much of the absurd comedy of The Goon Show has seeped into the national consciousness.
The Playhouse curtain raises as the men responsible for the hugely popular radio series – Spike Milligan (Stewart Magrath), Peter Sellers (Graham Lee), Harry Secombe (John Myhill) and announcer Wallace Greenslade (Kevin Evans) – are mid-performance. Clearly having fun, and making each other laugh as much as the audience, things soon take a darker turn, as we’re transported to the mental institution where most of the action takes place.
Milligan chats with his doctor (played by Kevin Evans), but finds mirages of his companions entering whenever the doctor leaves the room – whether that’s as themselves, or as a whole other cast of characters, including some rather stereotypical Irish leprechauns, who are hilarious in their ridiculousness.
Flashbacks make unwelcome visitations to Milligan too, and we’re treated to glimpses of the insanity that was The Goon Show. Standing under BBC mics suspended from the ceiling, and with scripts in hand, the cast launch wholeheartedly into the quick-fire and bizarre stories from the radio show (which you can listen to again on BBC Radio 4 Extra, if you’re curious…)
The cast, all utter Goons fans, perform with a real love for the characters they’re taking on. Kevin Evans somehow manages to keep a straight face as The Goons’ “straight man” Greenslade but also has a touching scene as Milligan’s soon-to-be ex-wife and a very convincing (and a little scary) Army Drill Sergent. Graham Lee took on the challenge of Peter Sellers’ many voices and won, and held the audience rapt with his Richard III, as well as making a wonderful camp hairdresser.
John Myhill as the larger than life Harry Secombe often ruled the stage with his booming Welsh voice and catchphrases, but he also showed a softer, gentler side when speaking honestly to Milligan. Myhill really came to life in the radio studio scenes though, well and truly channelling the spirit of the show.
The star, however, is Stewart Magrath. Often alone on the stage, Magrath delivers Milligan’s heartwrenching monologues about his struggles with shell shock and manic-depression with a real sadness, striking a cleverly constructed contrast between the ludicrous characters he played and his ongoing battle with himself. Deftly switching from joking his way through consultations with his doctor, to the deranged plotting of his characters’ violent deaths, to the quiet genuine moments of clarity, Magrath manages to show all the facets of Milligan’s confused personality without ever approaching him as a caricature.
Ying Tong featured probably the best-designed set I’ve seen recently at The Playhouse – a relatively simple scene comprising of the psychiatric hospital room, but used well alongside the subtle lighting changes to create the many different locations. Sound effects, an integral part of The Goon Show itself, were employed to great effect (if a little loud for Row B). Scene changes were done neatly including some marvellous synchronised door opening – perhaps a happy accident but it made my inner Stage Manager smile!
As I said at the start, don’t let unfamiliarity with The Goon Show put you off – if you love them anyway, there is plenty here in terms of nostalgia, but if, like me, you’re not intimate with all the catchphrases and in-jokes, there’s still an awful lot to find very funny indeed.
A moving, maniacal and hilariously funny production – and well worth the trip to The Playhouse.
Peformance: Wednesday 28 March 2018, The Playhouse Theatre, Northampton
Rebecca is a theatre lover originally from Birmingham. She founded On Stage Northants in 2017, and is passionate about promoting Northampton performing arts. Can usually be found behind the scenes, and occasionally in front of them too. Bec also runs Rebel Peacock Creative Media.