Saturday, 19 May 2018

Love, light and peace… A Sockful of Custard, Pleasance Theatre

Spike Milligan single-mindedly liberated our funny bones for a half century or more, he was the missing link between the Crazy Gang and Beyond the Fringe, a soldier blown up so high in the Second World War that he said he never really came down. 

Spike defined a comic sensibility that was as rock ‘n roll as Elvis or as be-bop as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.Why did The Beatles work with George Martin? Well, part of it was down to his having produced records for The Goons and for the lads as so many others from post-War to baby boom. His was a comedy that liberated itself from formula as surely as be-bop and rock shook free from big bands and manufactured pop. It was a very democratic mind-set, anyone could do it, well, anyone if they were funny enough and, in the case of this Lewisham lad, capable of genius-level silly.

Take Spike Milligan out of British comedy and you end up with less Peter Sellers, an unbearably smug Pete and Dud, Monty Python with no dead parrot and Ricky Gervais either still working selling paper or, at best, flogging minor New Romantic hits on the heritage circuit, bottom of the bill below Haircut 100. Spike’s was a major discontinuity in comic style and, together with other equally talented but perhaps not quite so inventive, he helped change the way we laughed for ever.

In the year of his hundredth birthday, Chris Larner and Jeremy Stockwell put their heads very close together, but not so close as to entangle their beards, and devised a cunning play of some 4.5 metres in length to answer the question of the custard, the sock and much-many more.

A Sockful of Custard manages to convey the essence of Spike without the restrictions of a straightforward narrative; it’s controlled playfulness masking the joyously hard graft of its component players.

Jeremy Stockwell
Jeremy Stockwell plays Spike Milligan and, as with his stint as Ken Campbell, shows what an excellent mimic he is… Spike is so specific that you just have to get him right and, opening the show shrouded in a sheet, Stockwell bravely takes on two of Spike’s iconic voices from The Goons. He nails it and the laughter starts to flow down from the cheap seats in the Pleasance’s Stage Space only to be reflected back Spike-style – by the two performers whose improvisations are so adept and sincere.

Interrupting our dreamy beginning Chris Larner, playing himself or someone slightly taller, strides on stage to direct proceedings by laying out cards which will form the basis of the narrative. There are 4.5 metres of instructions and Jeremy wonders if that’s just too long… It’s the two working out their structure and making a feature of the sheer difficulty in conveying Milligan.

They move from themselves to their characters with masterful ease and always direct to audience. That fourth wall is well and truly trampled especially as a glamorous redhead, let’s call her Catherine, is pulled on stage to help fold Spike’s sheet: it’s all part of the warm-hearted chaos Spike revelled in. 

And my better half’s smile as she tried to grab that sheet was so joyously in the moment, exactly what the veteran of 1940-45 would have wanted.

Spike and his Mum!
There was no containing Spike and after what he had seen, he was clearly convinced that laughter was the only way forward. I hadn’t been aware that he’d performed in Oblomov, at the Lyric Theatre and that his improvisations had created a record-breaking phenomenon.

As Spike plays the title character resolved to spend his days in bed, Chris Larner switches to the hapless thesp designated to play alongside him. He’s an insecure pro and looks out to his imaginary director repeating “is he…, is he…, is he…?” over an over with subtle intonations as he tries to second guess what the man in charge is trying to get him to ask and act. We’ve all done it but not perhaps Mr Milligan who grew bored of the script pretty quickly and proceeded to improvise the play to over four year’s of sell-out success, only stopping it when he’d just had enough.

The magnificent Joan Greenwood starred in the play and was initially very concerned but the mood shifted with her husband Andre Morrell declaring 'the man is a genius. He must be a genius—it's the only word for him. He's impossible—but he's a genius!'

That last sentence may appear to sum Spike up and Stockwell and Larner’s play is so disciplined in its in-discipline  - or vice-versa – that it conveys the unpredictability and raw unevenness of the man’s comedy and it is genuinely thrilling to watch.

Stockwell and Larner
Both recount their meetings with Spike and the mark he left; he respected his audience and was committed to kindness. He wished for “love, light and peace …” an echo of his early years in India and the post-war hopes for a continually-improved World. Now, as much as ever, we need to believe  in the prospect of happiness.

So don’t be daft, go and see these two marvellous men and their tribute to Mr Milligan; if you don’t you’ll never find out about the custard and the socks. And you’ll never get to feel that spirit in the moment.

A Sockful of Custard plays on at the Pleasance Theatre until May 26th and then transfers up to Edinburgh Fringe 2018 from 1st to 17th August at the Pleasance Dome.

Tickets available at the box office or online. The Pleasance is an excellent venue too – three stages and lots of bars!

IThankYouTheatre Rating: ***** Funny, warm and thoroughly engaging. These two work their socks off and Spike is back in the room and he hasn't left me yet...

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