Ying Tong - A Walk with the Goons
The current craze for nostalgia continues to sweep its way through the West End with this latest offering: ‘Ying Tong – A Walk With The Goons’. It has a familiar feel to it because, like the successful play ‘Round the Horne … Revisited’, it’s based on a BBC radio programme. So like ‘Round The Horne’, some scenes take place in a recording studio complete with old-fashioned microphones and ‘applause’ lights etc. But if you’re afraid you might experience déjà vu, fear not because the similarities pretty much end there (though there’s still plenty of nostalgia in store for those of a ‘certain age’).
‘Ying Tong’ is based on the immensely popular radio programme ‘The Goon Show’ (initially called ‘Crazy People’) which ran for 10 series on BBC radio between 1951 and 1960. The radio show originally starred four actors: Michael Bentine, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan (who also scripted the programme). Bentine left after the second series, leaving the three main actors who collectively came to be known to the nation as simply ‘The Goons’. The legacy of the show was that it revolutionised the direction and nature of British comedy for years to come, influencing in its wake the likes of the Monty Python team among many others. And this was largely due to the zany, original and unique writing of Spike Milligan.
‘Ying Tong – A Walk With The Goons’ begins with the recording of an episode of the radio programme during which Spike Milligan (played by James Clyde) has a nervous breakdown and has to be hospitalised. The remainder of the play depicts Milligan’s struggle with depression (which was to recur through most of his life, but exacerbated by the pressure of writing the ‘Goon Show’ scripts). It’s illustrated with flashbacks from his early career, personal life and experiences in the army during World War II. So, Hitler, leprechauns and morris dancers (among many other characters) all put in appearances.
With only 4 actors in the play, all have to double-up in several roles, which not only reflects the bizarre nature of the radio series itself, but also describes Milligan’s anguished mental state.
Jeremy Child is excellent as ‘The Goon Show’ radio announcer, but also portrays Milligan’s wife, his sergeant major and psychiatrist very convincingly too. Christian Patterson presents a jovial and down-to-earth Harry Secombe (as he should, since he has both the figure and the nationality to do so). And Peter Temple is particularly impressive as Peter Sellers - his take-off of Sellers’ Dr Strangelove role (from the 1963 film by Stanley Kubrick) is frighteningly accurate.
In the lead role, James Clyde succinctly captures Milligan’s mannerisms and personality combined with the tortuous nature of his mental condition in a moving and commendable performance.
‘The Goon Show’ had eccentric and kooky storylines, developed from Milligan’s unconventional and unique view of life. So there are lots of gags, and funny situations in ‘Ying Tong’, though it doesn’t quite have the audience ‘rolling in the aisles’. But it is an enjoyable and entertaining production, played and directed with enthusiasm and considerable affection. However, the final scene where the cast describe what happened to the Goons after the radio series ended felt contrived, and I wonder if the singing of the Ying Tong song was really as inevitable as it might have seemed to Roy Smiles (the author). Still, for those who’ve never heard it before it’s an education. And for those who know if off by heart, it’s likely to be pure nostalgia. Well worth seeing.
What other critics had to say.....
BRUCE DESSAU for THE EVENING STRANDARD says, "Laughs ripple gently....Comedy fans of all generations will get something out of this voyage around the dark side of the Goon." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Extremely funny. It evokes the Goon Show's mix of hurtling narrative, surreal sounds and eccentric voices.." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Both hilarious and deeply moving." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "An entertaining show." ROBERT HANKS for THE INDEPENDENT says, "An entertaining evening; but it is barely a play.