Spike review – capering tribute summons the wise-cracking Goon’s spirit

Spike Milligan spent the 1940s fighting the war – and the 50s fighting the BBC. That’s the argument ventured by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman in their play about the tormented comedian, who channelled his combat experiences into that “shellshock on radio” sensation, The Goon Show. Spike focuses on the early years of Milligan’s still-fragile success. Audiences love the show, it makes his co-stars Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers famous – but Milligan struggles with overwork, PTSD symptoms and the open disdain of the BBC’s top brass.

It’s a sympathetic portrait, then, of the Anglo-Irishman, the more so for John Dagleish’s likably hangdog turn in the title role. It’s Milligan with a pinch of Harry Corbett thrown in: shabby, chippy and unable to stop cracking wise, even when there’s a noose around his neck. Director Paul Hart summons the spirit of the Goons with a fast-paced, capering production, one short scene after another hurling us from the Grafton Arms back to the battlefields of Monte Cassino and forward to the recording studios of the BBC.

The dash distracts you from the lack of depth. The play paints Milligan’s fraught psychology in broad brushstrokes. His encounters with broadcasting’s stuffed shirts, as represented by blithering Robert Mountford, are enjoyable but cartoonish. Vivid as they are, George Kemp’s smooth Sellers and Jeremy Lloyd’s hearty Secombe are only ever supporting – and supportive – roles. And there’s no real dramatic shape to the tale Spike tells. The BBC’s snobbishness and Milligan’s fatigue are constants. Milligan’s eventual triumph, as the Goons’ audience figures become irresistible, is told not shown: the battle of wills between corporation and comic lacks a climax.

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But as an overview of a revolutionary moment in comedy history, it’s nimbly done, with a fun role carved out for Margaret Cabourn-Smith’s Foley artist Janet (and a thankless one for Ellie Morris as Spike’s beleaguered wife). The impression is potent of a talent who needed pricks to kick against, and in doing so – notably here with a Goons Orwell parody mocking “the Big Brother Corporation” – loosed British entertainment from the chains of deference. For that, he deserves thanks – and this buoyant tribute.