Going, going, Goon: last chance to catch comedy classic

If you want to see The Goon Show performed live on stage, you had better get along to the Spread Eagle Theatre tonight. It could be the last performance of the show, ever, warns BELLA BARTOCK

They said that with his epitaph, I told you I was ill, Spike Milligan was having the last laugh.

The original Goons in one of their later revivals: Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe

The original Goons in one of their later revivals: Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe

I doubt that the inveterate subversive would be laughing much now, though, if he knew that those left in charge of his catalogue of work were effectively blocking the live performance of a couple of his scripts from his halcyon days of the 1950s with The Goon Show.

For this Goon Show revival, actors Phil Hemming (as Wallace Greenslade, the continuity announcer and so, soooo much more), Robert Coletta (as Milligan), Richard Usher (Peter Sellers) and Jim Rennie (Harry Secombe) recreate two of Milligan’s 1954 scripts. What might have been a straightforward task took the producer, Dave Freak, more than a year to bring to the stage.

This was not because of any great complexities in the staging, or problems with the casting. It was because those left in charge of the estates of Milligan, Sellers and Secombe, and possibly the BBC, too, have been thorough-going pains when it has come to granting permission – or taking a licence fee – to permit the stage recreation.

Permission was given for no more than six stagings of the scripts. Just six! So after a couple of nights in Birmingham last month, and four nights here in Croydon at the Spread Eagle – the last being tonight – that’s it. No more Goon Show on stage, unless the various executors can agree to allow the Old Joint Stock Theatre Company to continue to perform the show.

There would certainly be an audience for it.

Last night was pretty much a full house, and it was full of Goon fans. On the way in, they all looked normal enough, though at a guess, the young Polish couple sat in front of me probably lowered the average age of the audience closer to 40. What they made of it all, my grasp of London’s second language was not good enough to tell.

One obvious fan sat beside me, flicking through a rather dog-eared copy of the collected radio scripts in not an altogether healthy manner. Another, as revealed to us after the performance, is the chairman of something called The Goon Show Preservation Society (yes, there is one). He had travelled all the way, he said, from Mortlake.

And there were plenty more in the audience who joined in at key parts of the performance. It was like being at a Singalong-a-Sound of Music, and I’d have to have a Milliganesque gravestone on top of me before you got me to one of those.

I have a confession to make. While my children, Bobby and little Bella, bless them, would giggle and guffaw as they crowded around our radiogram when the shows were first aired on the Home Service 60 years ago, I never understood the fascination myself. Give me Tommy Hanley any day. Or the Crazy Gang. When it emerged that Prince Charles was the world’s biggest Goons fan, I felt that proved my point that they were not that funny at all.

Individually, I was a great admirer of Milligan’s writing and wit, I thought Sellers one of the finest comic actors of his age (Being There brilliantly predicts the idiot presidencies of Reagan and George Dubya), and wasn’t Harry Secombe a darling in Oliver!? But The Goon Show?

The Goon Show on stage again, featuring Seagoon, Bluebottle, Milligan and some other bloke

The Goon Show on stage again, featuring (from left) Seagoon, Bluebottle, Milligoon and “the Man in Black”, after he’d been to a cheap dry cleaners

This staging uses two original radio shows, based on the recorded performances, rather than Milligan’s written form (what was broadcast often varied wildly from the script): “The Phantom Head Shaver (of Brighton)”, and “The Canal”.

In the interval between the two, I visited the ladies’ room to powder my nose, and noticed that my mascara had barely run as a result of the hilarity of the piece.

Indeed, it was telling that when someone emerged from behind the backdrop curtain (the audience take their seats in the Spread Eagle via an entrance behind the stage), having turned up 10 minutes late, it was Hemming’s ad lib – “It’s just a stage he’s going through” – that got the biggest laugh so far.

That, though, is tribute to the excellent cast, who immersed themselves in their characters (the “He’s fallen in the water!” catchphrase did make an appearance) and who are faithful to the letter and the spirit of the scripts.

The staging, as if we were in the BBC Radio Theatre in 1954, with musical interludes and suitable sound effects for the wireless, is convincing and evocative. Rennie, as “Seagoon”, carries a good deal of the show with energy and enthusiasm, and Usher’s “Bluebottle” character quickly won over the Goon fans in the audience, as did “Eccles”, the Milligan creation performed by Coletta.

What the audience sees on stage is a comedy time capsule, witnessing something which pre-dates, and made possible, all the surreal and alternative comedy which followed through the 1960s and into the 1980s. It was no accident when Milligan had a cameo role in Life of Brian, playing a prophet abandoned by his flock. Without him and The Goons  there would have been no Monty Python mega-shows at the O2.

When the pompous Diocese of Chichester refused Milligan’s family permission to have his own chosen epitaph on his own grave, the decision was subverted by having it carved in stone in Gaelic. If the estate executors continue to thwart the producers and performers of The Goon Show, perhaps they should try to perform it in an alternative language, too.

Coming to Croydon

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