The Old Vic is still marking time in Bristol before Tom Morris takes the reins in September but it’s good to see the place buzzing again with the start of a touring production of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, even though the occasion is more enjoyable than delirious, more moody than madcap.
Ben Power and director Tim Carroll have adapted the first four books of Milligan’s seven book saga, which he started publishing in the early 1970s with the unforgettable announcement that a man who earned a living doing impressions of Neville Chamberlain said that “we” were at war with Germany.
“It must have been something we said,” muttered Spike’s dad as mother built the bomb shelter and Spike lay back in the tin bath blowing his own trumpet. Well, he couldn’t afford anyone else’s. With five versatile and musically talented actors, Carroll then creates a vaudeville narrative of Spike’s campaign from Bexhill-on-Sea to North Africa and Italy before he’s invalided out with shell shock and propelled into show business.
In the Boys of Battery D, Sholto Morgan’s shock-haired, passively angelic Milligan finds a soul mate in Dominic Gerrard’s Harry “Duke” Edgington, clear fore-runner of his Goonish sidekick Harry Secombe, though there’s nothing here that really suggests the seismic attack on the British sense of humour Milligan launched on radio in the 1950s.
The show proceeds as a melancholic concert with Matt Devereaux as a Jim Broadbent-like clarinet-blowing officer and David Morley Hale as a bum-baring bassist, and one genuinely hilarious outburst in a nonsense number invoking the forgotten legend of Tommy Trinder (“You lucky people”) who was the first host of Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
By this time Spike is afflicted with piles and robbed of his lance bombardier stripe, and he lies on his back again to play the Last Post which segues into a flat-out version of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin.’” It’s not so much an exposition of the futility of war as a confirmation of it. Spike was always a fully signed up pacifist, but the army gave him friends, his jazz and his thoroughly anarchic sense of humour. This show explains why, without really bringing him to dangerous life again. How on earth could it?