“It is juvenile, it should stop at once,” comes the complaint from one of Spike Milligan’s officers during his World War II campaign. He is partially right, Milligan’s humour might be a touch on the juvenile side – I struggle to find a better word to describe it than silly – but that is no reason for it to stop. In fact, it should be whole-heartedly encouraged.
Hampstead theatre’s summer comedy has been adapted from Milligan’s war memoirs and tells the story of his time in the army, from the outbreak of war in 1939 to the time he left, suffering from shellshock, in 1944. It doesn’t just tell the story, like some kind of jolly séance it summons his very spirit to the stage, not through only own words and wit, but through the music he loved so much which is used to string the story together.
Presented as an army entertainment show, the tale is told through a series of sketches detailing important moments in those five years, from Milligan’s description of his family to barrack room discussions about women and food, from how to pass the time when standing guard in a hole – count your nose, imagine soap – to receiving a letter from his battery while recovering in hospital. Each of the sketches – which take the audience from Bexhill to North Africa then Naples, “the Catford of Italy” – is delivered with enough cheeky panache to keep a smile stuck to the audience’s faces.
The five-strong cast form Milligan’s jazz band as well as playing anyone concerned with the Second World War, from a sex-starved soldier to a Hitler afraid of modern music. Only Sholto Morgan, in his professional debut, sticks to one role, that of Milligan, imbuing it with just the right amount of wide-eyed innocence that allows him to get away with the most ridiculous of remarks.
The humour is easily recognisable as Milligan’s own, with gags coming faster than bullets from a tommy gun, and those who have read the books will feel at home with the adaptation by Ben Power and director Tim Carroll. But the show keeps at least a toe in the real world; the laughter occasionally cut short when the reality of war hits home like a mortar through a change in musical tone or the loss of a character.
It may well be silly, but why not; that is why the public fell in love with Milligan when he first started years ago, and that is why he is still remembered as a comic genius.