There is something magical about the humour of the Goons, that wacky bunch of comedians who burst onto the British airwaves in 1951 and whose shows you can still catch on the ABC's Radio National at some ungodly hour on a weekday morning. Theirs is a humour that relies on the shock of non sequiturs, of mad segues off into the unknown, a humour that encourages their audience to let their imaginations run wild. It is a humour that depends totally on sound, both verbal and non-verbal.
How could anyone possibly capture their madness and translate it onto the stage? How could you possibly tell the story of the show and its madcap creators - the manic, crazy, talented Spike Milligan; Peter Sellers, the man who found it easier to be anyone else but himself; and the comparatively sane and grounded comic tenor, Harry Secombe - without losing the spark and disappointing your audience? Well the aptly named Roy Smiles has done just this with his play Ying Tong, A Walk with the Goons. Smiles has used the fact of Milligan's breakdown in 1960 as a focus around which he has been able to build a story of the individuals and of the show that is as engaging and madcap as any one of their scripts, and ultimately quite moving. It is a credit to the writing, and the fact that Smiles listened to all the programs and read all the scripts, that it is difficult to know which jokes are from Goon scripts and which are penned by Smiles.
The play opens with two standing microphones, each with BBC emblazoned across them, in front of a red curtain. Following a fanfare of Goon show music, Spike Milligan (Geoff Kelso), Peter Sellers (Jonathan Biggins), Harry Secombe (David James) and Wallace Greenslade (Tony Harvey) enter, scripts in hand and the 'applause' sign lights up. We're in a recording studio and the audience joins in. The stage is set as we are entertained by a classic Goons script. The curtains open to reveal Spike Milligan in the asylum bantering with his doctor who looks remarkably like Wallace Greenslade. It is 1960 and he is suffering from his first major breakdown; he is also under financial and emotional pressure to write yet another series. Dreams and reality alternate as we learn something of Milligan's personal past, and that of the others, and of the story of the Goons.
The performances are outstanding, so much so that you forget that they are actors and respond to them in the character of the Goons. Milligan is a wacky, manic, genius who is nevertheless loveable and ultimately tragic. Sellers is a melange of different personalities – Dr Strangelove makes an hilarious appearance. Secombe is solid and loyal, the cement that keeps the three together.
The set (set and costume designer Michael Scott-Mitchell) is particularly effective with its green tiles and archways suggestive of an asylum, an underground railway station and even Milligan's ear – the last Goon show of them all is A Journey to the Centre of Milligan's Brain to which they gain entry through his ear. And I loved the leprachauns, especially the Jewish one!
No Goon show would be complete without sound effects and Paul Charlier clearly had great fun with these just as, according to Roy Smiles, the BBC sound people did with the original Goon shows.
The Sydney production of Ying Tong, A Walk with the Goons has just opened at The Playhouse in Melbourne and is sure to wow audiences, both Goons tragics and others, over the coming weeks. You don't have to be over fifty to get the humour, you just have to be willing to listen and to use your imagination.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents Sydney Theatre Company’s production of
YING TONG – A WALK WITH THE GOONS
by Roy Smiles
the Arts Centre Playhouse
23 June - 28 July 2007
Mon & Tue 6.30pm, Wed 1pm & 8pm (no mat 20 Jun), Thu & Fri 8pm, Sat 4pm & 8.30pm (23 Jun 2pm & 8pm)
$16 - $72.10
Ticketmaster 1300 136 166 or www.mtc.com.au