The loon Goon gone wrong

A new play dramatises the exuberant madness of Spike Milligan's life and work
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The Independent Culture

Spike Milligan's headstone reads, "I told you I was ill." It is trademark Milligan: deadpan, subversive, hilarious. But a new play by Roy Smiles makes it clear that the temperamental Goon was genuinely ill for much of his life, suffering from clinical depression. Ying Tong charts one particular incident when Spike tried to escape from a mental hospital in the mid-1950s to write "the Goon Show to end all Goon Shows". The playwright has sought to pay witness to the extraordinary imagination and terrible cost of Milligan's genius, as he conjures "Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, his ex-wife, Irish leprechauns, morris dancers - this enormous range of crazy and wonderful characters".

Spike Milligan's headstone reads, "I told you I was ill." It is trademark Milligan: deadpan, subversive, hilarious. But a new play by Roy Smiles makes it clear that the temperamental Goon was genuinely ill for much of his life, suffering from clinical depression. Ying Tong charts one particular incident when Spike tried to escape from a mental hospital in the mid-1950s to write "the Goon Show to end all Goon Shows". The playwright has sought to pay witness to the extraordinary imagination and terrible cost of Milligan's genius, as he conjures "Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, his ex-wife, Irish leprechauns, morris dancers - this enormous range of crazy and wonderful characters".

"It is a comedy," stresses Michael Kingsbury, Ying Tong's director, having outlined the underlying poignancy of the plot. One suspects, though, that the play, like the man, will be a mass of unresolved tensions: at once comedic and genuinely moving. The director considers that comedy acted as both Milligan's disease and its cure, "a self-healing process for Spike". As such, Ying Tong is a journey into and through Milligan's unique consciousness, an under- taking that seems to have already reaped dividends for the artistic team behind this production. "Roy frightened the life out of me the other night," recalls Kingsbury. "At 3am, I heard a noise. I thought there was a burglar in the house, but it turned out to be Roy, re-writing a Goons sketch."

Clearly, Milligan's own creative intensity is not lost on the writing/directing team. Smiles, in particular, feels that he has inhabited the Goons' world his whole life: "I've always been obsessed by them. Bought all the books. Had all the scripts. My aunties used to do impressions of them around the house." This upbringing was invaluable in approximating the "richness, absurdity, madness and joy of the [Goons'] language", when writing Ying Tong. The challenge of this piece, he says, was to catch the flavour of The Goon Show without actually reproducing original Goons material. So, has that process been successful? "That's not for me to say," says the writer, "but the people at West Yorkshire Playhouse seem to think so."

Fans of mid-20th century comedy will be delighted to know that Ying Tong is the first in a proposed trilogy about dead comics, which will include Tony Hancock and a play about Groucho Marx and Lenny Bruce. Kingsbury says he is intrigued by the prospect of working on a Hancock project with Smiles - "if we're still talking to each other at the end of this one".

The director also gives an assurance that those who are unfamiliar with The Goon Show will be able to enjoy the play along with ardent Goon-ers. "People will connect with Spike's journey - we've all felt like that." And does the comedy hold up to 21st-century inspection? "It is timeless. If you like The Fast Show, if you like Monty Python, if you like Little Britain, you'll like the humour in this play."

'Ying Tong', West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113-213 7700; www.wyp.org.uk) 22 October to 20 November

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