Ying Tong, New Ambassadors, London

A pale imitation of comedy
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The Independent Culture

The most surprising thing about Ying Tong is that it has taken this long for a play about the Goons to reach the West End: after all, in recent years we've had shows featuring the Carry On team (Terry Johnson's Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick), Morecambe and Wise ( The Play What I Wrote) and the cast of Round the Horne, not to mention Garry Lyons' more than decent stab at Tommy Cooper in Frankie and Tommy, and any number of one-man shows about Tony Hancock. I'm contemplating Howerd's End, in which Frankie relives his lifelong battles with haemorrhoids.

The most surprising thing about Ying Tong is that it has taken this long for a play about the Goons to reach the West End: after all, in recent years we've had shows featuring the Carry On team (Terry Johnson's Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick), Morecambe and Wise ( The Play What I Wrote) and the cast of Round the Horne, not to mention Garry Lyons' more than decent stab at Tommy Cooper in Frankie and Tommy, and any number of one-man shows about Tony Hancock. I'm contemplating Howerd's End, in which Frankie relives his lifelong battles with haemorrhoids.

Most dead-comedian plays fall into one of two categories - the tears beneath the laughter, or straightforward celebration. In Ying Tong, a transfer from the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Roy Smiles has tried to do both. The action opens in a radio studio where a recording of The Goon Show is taking place, but soon shifts to a mental hospital, where Spike Milligan has landed up after a breakdown induced by the strain of churning out scripts every week.

Here he is visited by freakish visions, including a Jewish leprechaun, and Wallace Greenslade ( The Goon Show's imperturbable announcer) dragged up as Spike's wife. These are interspersed with flashbacks to significant episodes in his life, and an imaginary Goons episode, "Journey to the Centre of Milligan's Brain", in which Ned Seagoon embarks on a quest to recover Spike's lost marbles.

So long as it sticks to Goons pastiche, Michael Kingsbury's production is a hoot - and I say this as someone who stopped finding the Goons funny about 20 years ago. Aside from a couple of anachronisms (herpes jokes arrived around 1980: in the 1950s, gonorrhoea was the comedian's venereal disease of choice), Smiles' gags are pitched perfectly; and the cast, without exception, offer superb impressions.

Christian Patterson, in particular, is an uncanny simulacrum of Harry Secombe, while Peter Temple, as Peter Sellers, is perfect so long as he is behind the microphone - he hasn't found a convincing style for Sellers himself, though, and isn't helped by the fact that Smiles has opted for the received "mask behind the mask" interpretation of Sellers. Jeremy Child, as Greenslade and several supernumerary parts, is effortlessly good. James Clyde carries the burden of the drama, as Milligan: a very good Eccles and Minnie Bannister, and he catches Milligan's expressions and posture brilliantly; like Temple, though, he sometimes seems adrift in the real-life scenes.

And this is the play's central weakness - its inability to relate the life to the comedy. Though Smiles has tried to make a virtue out of non sequitur - which was, after all, at the heart of Milligan's humour - the arbitrary structure is a handicap; and too much information is conveyed through large chunks of monologue.

Most damagingly, I never felt that Smiles had come anywhere near to uncovering the roots of Milligan's madness: in the end, all he gives us is the familiar irony, clowns can be sad. Ying Tong is, by and large, an entertaining evening; but it is barely a play.

To 4 June (0870 060 6627)

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