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Brighton Year-Round 2022


Ian Hislop and Nick Newman

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton


Low Down

Writers Ian Hislop, Nick Newman, Director Paul Hart, Designer (set & Costume) Katie Lias, Lighting Design Rory Beaton, Sound Designer Tom Marshall, Music Tayo Akinbode, Movement Director Anjali Mehra, Associate Director Robert Kirby, Associate Movement Director Shelby Williams, Costumer Supervisor Emma Ntinas, Foley Sound Consultant Ruth Sullivan, Casting Director Annelie Powell.

Till October 15th and touring


It’s about this FX genius Janet. Margaret Cabourn-Smith calmly announces and performs a gallimaufry of radio effects, including chopping a cabbage with a cleaver, rustling a leather satchel full of peas and doing something unspeakable with tape, which is a notch up on the 78s she starts with.  From Janet’s heavy jumper and sensible shoes you infer it’s the 1950s and a cold pea-souper. Sound happens. Twice, at the start of each act.

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have done their best to rescue this obscure 1950s show and its script-writer, and even state that pretty well all comedy from one Peter Cook (no, I’d not heard of him either) to Monty Python and even Beatles jokes are inspired from the recordings and scripts of The Goons, or in fact one Spike – from which we’re led to one Terence Milligan was a comedic genius, who went on to infect wartime autobiography, poetry and many other genres: except television, where his Q shows were relegated to BBC2 hours after The Old Grey Whistle Test. Which you’ll not remember either unless you’re an old grey whistle, probably under arrest.

Nevertheless, Hislop’s and Newman’s talents are nothing if not deluded: they pour their efforts into recreating the synergy and silliness of an actual rehearsal, and this night’s um entertainment is structured just like one. As if we care! Goons now? Sounds more 1940s. No, you’d not heard of the 1940s, nor have many under a certain telegram age, surprised the current monarch on admiring this Spike – feted at a Lifetimes Award 1994 – was called by him on air a ‘grovelling bastard’. Well no, we can’t allow that. The BBC were quite right to censor this show and haul it off air. Except – it escaped.

Hislop, who knew Milligan, and Newman though have got hold of all the real correspondence between Milligan and the BBC, and internal memos. Auntie is cross. Auntie tried closing The Goons down on many occasions, even though it reached four million; and she’ll close this show down too: so hurry.

The coming together of Spike Milligan (Robert Wilfort), Harry Seacombe (the singing Jeremy Lloyd) and Peter Sellars (Patrick Warner, who can do every voice except Sellars’ own) defined an era, then comedy itself. As three working-class gifted comics out of the army and into Auntie, this had nothing to do with the 1950s. Or rather it blew the decade up. The scripts are raw, anarchically funny, stab, not poke fun at the late queen moments after her coronation, 1984 days after that epoch-making drama went out, the BBC as Big Brother Corporation in 1985 with The Archers speeded up as torture in Room 101. Janet, of course chief torturer. You knew she was all along.

Was it true Seacombe was born in Broadcasting House and is still trying to find his way out? All this and other questions aren’t even dealt with let alone answered. The public should know why £18 (half the fees paid to the others) was wasted on Milligan in every episode. The writer’s not the talent… That’s why Sellars now a film star begged to come back and work free for Spike just before he dropped dead in 1980.

Director Paul Hart zips along a narrative around a very slick production: it comprises a single set that designer Katie Lias creates around a studio with chequered blue and white interior, a studio behind glass and a variety of props like hospital beds and costume, where the FX table foregrounds on occasion. It fuses hyper-realism with flexibility.

Movement director Anjali Mehra stages an extraordinary spectacle of gyrating, exaggerated poses (the Critics being the piece de resistance) dance routines brilliantly spotlit and physical gags, capturing their spontaneity as they spewed molten from Spike or Seacombe and got parodied by Sellars. Special shout to Tom Marshall for his sound FX everywhere.And the trumpets sound from him and Spike too: jazz, Haydn’s concerto. ‘Hidin’? He’s been dead for years.’ Though Cabourn-Smith gives the last er, post on that instrument.

This is of course brilliant: partly for managing to combine the sudden explosions (Marshall) with Rory Beaton’s lighting to flash across war trauma and tin hats as Milligan’s PTSD collides with gallows humour collides with spells in a strait-jacket having tried to murder Sellars with a potato peeler. I told you he was ill. Oh, I didn’t. But the writers refuse to craft a tragedy of  clowning, the suicidal lives of comics like Kenneth Williams or Tony Hancock.

Though focusing on the earlier half of the 1950-60 Goon decade, the play seems to draw on the whole Spike/BBC combat zone.

What the writers do is deftly weave jokes and the hilarity of a nightmare so lacking in humour it repeats itself; a literally bad joke, where Milligan, under extraordinary pressure periodically breaks down and breaks into gags. Wilfort crams a shimmering danger into his madcap antics, nearly always on stage, always about to explode. His physicality arcs from a demented pelican to collapse into a black hole from which, like Dick Barton, he leaps though leaving a scrape of himself behind. It’s a performance where exuberance triumphs over obvious chasms, more faithful than tracing comedic crash-and-burns. Spike did much of it on stage, feeding joyously on chaos. Rarely has the true dark been made so apparent, and never at such a creative level.

Lloyd the peacemaker in fact has many one-liners and if you don’t listen he’ll sing to you: which alas he does, and once never, ever stops. Warner the differently-voiced chameleon has here a less defined role because bar fast car and fast-talking women he doesn’t believe Sellars exists; despite near-psychotic levels of competition with Spike: hence the well-earned potato-peeler. Warner suddenly apparates, then vanishes, is Sellars incarnate.

Cabourn-Smith relishes cooking her ingredients of Armageddon, often sourced from her backfiring Morris Traveller. It’s an outstanding workout on its own, a solo act as well as her interacting with others, and gets ovations each time.

Ellie Morris’s straight-act June, Spike’s wife sashays exasperation and love round Wilfort, and Lloyd and his sensible wife, Tecbi Kujore’s Myra injecting some downright pep-talking when required. Don’t let them think they’re special, make them empty the bin: correcting June’s mix of shock and awe. James Mack plays two contrasting producers: Dennis Main-Wilson, who supports then leaves the Goons for Hancock, then seemingly made-for-drama producer Peter Eton who turns out the best support of all.

Mack’s warm exasperation provides a counterfoil to Robert Mountford’s pompous destructive  BBC Exec. Mountford, who we often see so chipper (his memorable Parolles for instance in Jermyn Street’s All’s Well, or one-person show on Phil Lynott) that his straight-man avatar’s almost a shock. Mountford’s parodic edge is almost out of sight, but not quite. That’s why he’s so good at it.

Sam Ducane’s amusingly overwhelmed Doctor and Peter Dukes’ mainlining the 1950s BBC Announcer all play off Wilfort’s radial Spikomania.

This is above all a homage to comic genius caught at its first height, and a refusal to mourn what was after all a creative life lived to its hilt in Auntie’s back. Outstanding.