The Bristol Old Vic is temporarily decked out with sandbags and bunting as if celebrating D-Day, or some amateur theatre revival of Oh, What a Lovely War!
In fact, this well-crafted adaptation of Spike Milligan's memoirs is a slightly depressing and all too melancholic account of life in the ranks as experienced by our hero, a jazz-loving trumpeter and non-joiner who found his vocation in the lunacy of war.
"Hands up anyone who's not been killed yet. Anyone hurt? Well, anyone annoyed, then... " You can see where Milligan was going with his warped sense of humour, and it's a measure of Ben Power and director Tim Carroll's take on the books that you get a proper sense of jokes burnished in the flames of adversity and of sheer annoyance at the stupidity of army life.
Refuge was found in jazz, and the production is a feast of classics played and sung by the versatile cast of five, ranging from Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump" to Glenn Miller's "In the Mood". The sergeant major's po-faced rendition of the Lord's Prayer is elided with "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" and there are two priceless jewels about Tommy Trinder.
If anything, the show is too neat, lacking the ramshackle quality Milligan brought to his own stage appearances. The actors are too laced up: Sholto Morgan is a very good trumpeter as Spike, but there's no grit in the oyster, and his stick-up hair looks like a make-up job, not a physical condition. Matt Devereaux is an officer type, while David Morley Hale, William Findley and Dominic Gerrard fill in as fall guys and remarkable musicians.
The stage adaptation misses the strange progress in Milligan's writing, from brilliantly satirical anger to sad and poignant reflection; to read the books you get that rare and exciting sense of someone finding out about himself as he dredges up the past.
After Bristol, the show goes on the road until the end of November. I'd like to think that it would work as a meaningful touchstone of war-time memories as well as a fitting tribute to Milligan, but it's more likely to be received as a pleasant way of spending an evening with a few funny gags about the Nazis, but nothing as stupendous or tasteless as in The Producers.
To 18 July (www.spikeswar.com; 0117 987 7877); then touringReuse content