Not so much a scream of a comedy as a silent howl from that very private, painful and tortured offstage place that so many stage and television comics, from Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams and Peter Cook, for instance, seemed to inhabit, Ying Tong is the latest in a growing genre of plays that seek to take the lid off the pot and establish what ingredients went into making the comic feast that the protagonist was capable of.
In this case, Roy Smiles has focused on the clinically depressed Spike Milligan at a time when, institutionalised St Luke’s Hospital in Muswell Hill in 1960, his Goon Show colleagues Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe try to lure him back to write just one more series of the radio series that had made their names over the previous nine years.
While Round the Horne...Revisited, currently also in the West End, hilariously revisits the recording studio as episodes from that eponymous Sixties comic serial are being recorded, Smiles’ play (first seen at the West Yorkshire Playhouse last year) attempts something far more ambitious. Sketches from the radio show are interwoven instead with scenes from Spike’s desperate attempts to restore his sanity. At the same time, it movingly locates both the origins of the Goon Show’s assault on the Establishment and his own unhappiness, which it turns out, came from the same place: Milligan’s experiences as a soldier on duty in Italy in the Second World War, which is where he also first met Secombe.
Secombe survived the war emotionally intact, and in fact says that “the war made people like us… What was the Goons if it wasn’t an attack on every pompous twit officer we ever met?”. But Milligan – who was court-martialled while shell-shocked – spent his life confronting the demons of what it all meant.
“My argument is that the rest of humanity doesn’t whine enough,” he says, when Sellers accuses him of being a whiner. “If I meet another cabbie who shouts: ‘cheer up mate, it might never happen’, I’ll kill them. World War Two happened. Korea happened. The Cold War happened. If Russia doesn’t nuke us, the Americans will. The world’s on the brink of wholesale slaughter and I’m supposed to be chipper?”
In a second act scene of amazing comic dexterity, Smiles (the name, of course, is perfect for the author of comedies) turns Milligan’s life itself into an episode from the Goon Show: the play becomes a “Journey to the Centre of Milligan’s Brain”.
Though it’s not always easy to keep up with the changes of comic pace and place in Michael Kingsbury’s production – just as it clearly wasn’t easy being inside Milligan’s own brain – it is nevertheless beautifully propelled by a fine trio of performances from James Clyde as Milligan, Peter Temple as Sellers and Christian Patterson as Secombe, with Jeremy Child on hand as straight-man announcer Wallace Greenslade and psychiatrist.
- Mark Shenton
NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from November 2004 and this production's original run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds.
The playwright who toys with a national treasure like The Goon Show may be acknowledged for his courage; he who messes with the roadkill that was Spike Milligan at its centre might be accused of reckless abandon. Roy Smiles, writer of Ying Tong, succeeds in making the former a joyous celebration and manages not to come too badly unstuck with the latter.
It's inevitably never going to be a rounded picture. There were at least three different psychodramas working themselves out in the Goons: fortunately, the nutter Michael Bentine drifted away very quickly and the febrile demons at work in Peter Sellers managed to keep themselves largely undercover at this early point. Harry Secombe ate all the pies, was full of bonhomie and had his Welsh Protestant God and a decent tenor voice to fall back on. Spike had Irish Catholic guilt, a family history of depression and a confusing childhood which combined the privilege of life under the Raj with poverty in London.
Ying Tong opens at the recording of a show in the BBC radio theatre, with the three protagonists and announcer Wallace Greenslade. The surreal lunacy of the radio show has barely ten minutes to establish itself before Milligan collapses in a heap - and he thereafter spends much of the play in a hospital bed, beset by an ineffectual psychiatrist. Thus does Smiles paint himself into a corner far too early on, leaving no exit other than by flashback or an occasional fanciful hospital visit.
While there's plenty of fun, what’s missing throughout is any sense that Milligan was a genius of a funny man, that he went in and out of hospital, continued working and making a whole generation laugh helplessly. And we get no closer than, apparently, his doctors did to discovering what tortured him. Writing his various brilliant volumes of war memoirs got him over the writer's block that The Goon Show drove him into, but it's doubtful if it made him a much happier person.
The performances of Christian Patterson as Secombe and Peter Temple as Sellers are very fine, remarkably accurate, impersonations; nothing more, nothing less. James Clyde has a far harder job delivering a Milligan riddled with mental agony and depleted of the incisive wit which gave the real man a partial safety valve. It's a searing attempt, though at moments it has the whining cadence of Harry H Corbett rather than the desperate anger by which Spike came to be recognised.
Director Michael Kingsbury must take the rap for two infelicities. First, Wallace Greenslade was not a long streak like Alvar Liddell - he was famously corpulent, as of course we all saw. And the orchestra was not Max Geldray's, it belonged to The Goon Show 's other Wal, Wally Stott, who has since undergone gender reassignment and lives in America as Angela. Now Spike would have had something to say about that.
- Ian Watson (reviewed at Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse)