The loon Goon gone wrong

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

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

Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week