Like a Dr Who-esque timewarp, the front of the 21st century Hampstead theatre leapt back to the Second World War this morning (27 July) as the cast of Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall performed atop a vintage vehicle.
Matt Devereaux, William Findley, Dominic Gerrard, Sholto Morgan and David Morley Hale showed the Dunkirk spirit and braved the distinctly soggy British summer to bring a musical flavour of the 1940s and a touch of Milligan’s comic genius to Hampstead ahead of the show’s official London opening.
The new comedy with music, which plays at the Hampstead theatre until 22 August, is adapted from Milligan’s war memoirs and follows his life from the start of the Second World War to his invaliding out of the army.
Morgan, who plays the young Milligan in his army days before he became a household name and one of Britain’s most famous comedians, took a minute after the al fresco performance to speak to Official London Theatre about his experience with the show and his research into Milligan and the Second World War.
Though originally daunted by the prospect of playing a man and entertainer so unique and loved, Morgan found all the research material he could need in Milligan’s books and was reassured by knowing what happened to his character when the play ended. Away from Milligan’s life, he was also interested in how the play reflected what may have given the British such strength in the face of war.
“The reason we probably won [World War II],” he said, “was we persevered, we had comedy, we had music and there was a lightness to it. We didn’t dwell on the bad. The soldiers weren’t particularly sentimental about people’s deaths because they didn’t have time. The practicality of it was that if a comrade died or a colleague died in action you had to save your own life.”
Morgan’s grandfather was a prisoner of war. His recently discovered diary and letters speak little of any atrocities during his captivity, but remain “jovial and light” in the face of hardship. “My father says to me all the time ‘You’ve got to make the best of difficulties.’ I think that’s what they did in the Second World War, they made the best of difficulties, they tried to find some glimmer of hope and then exploit that.”
Maybe performing in the drizzle is not entirely the same, but it shares a common spirit.