Surviving Spike

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

‘Michael Barrymore’s dramatic stage debut!’ scream the posters for Surviving Spike – and given his recent history, his return to the stage was never going to be anything BUT dramatic.

But then what more apt role for a troubled entertainer than Spike Milligan, a comic whose battles with depression are almost as well documented as his peerless contribution to comedy.

Surviving Spike is a profile of the Goon based on the memoirs of Norma Farnes, his long-suffering secretary, manager, confidante – and perennial butt of his impossible behaviour.

The play is an almost relentless catalogue of examples of just how difficult – and occasionally wonderful – he was to be with, through his tantrums, his tenderness, his womanising, his campaigning – (often misguided and petty), his mood swings, his spite and his humour.

In fact, there’s rather too much going on to get too much narrative going, as if the show is trying to pack in every incident remembered by Farnes, who is competently played by Strictly Come Dancing’s Jill Halfpenny. She acts as narrator to the action, making evident the play’s roots in the printed word. An unfortunate consequence of this is that for much of the two-hour performance, we are too often being told the state of their fractious relationship, rather than being shown them, which is frustrating.

Initially, this explanation seems necessary, as Barrymore doesn’t seem at all comfortable in his roles. Both he and Halfpenny flunk a few lines, which is excusable on only the second night, but the early conversations feel stilted and fake. Perhaps wisely, Barrymore doesn’t attempt an impersonation - this Spike Milligan has a London accent and sometimes acts more like John Cleese, an allegation long levelled at Barrymore.

What he is good at are the moments of comic lunacy: blowing raspberries and pretending to be a jelly; donning a tin hat and toilet-brush moustache; or sticking his head into a waste-paper basket. A stand-up routine, ostensibly from one of Spike’s one-man shows, seems designed purely to play to Barrymore’s strengths – although even he seems to have difficulty conducting the audience in a rendition of the Ying Tong Song.

As the second half kicks in, Barrymore seems to grow in confidence in his role, as the mass of contradictions that made up Spike solidify. He’s the man whose countless pet causes included overpopulation, yet fathered six children; the man who pleaded ‘please God make people nicer’ while being the world’s most awkward bastard himself.

Above all, though, he was a comic genius genuinely worthy of the epithet and there are plenty of hilarious lines in Surviving Spike that reflect this – after all, they were written by the best: Spike himself. Should his most ardent fan feel the need to pop over the road from his mother’s castle to the Theatre Royal Windsor, he surely won’t be disappointed at the barbed Milligan witticisms on offer.

The play’s conclusion is inevitably bitter-sweet, given there’s nothing so poignant as the death of a comedian, and by this time Barrymore, with Halfpenny’s help, has drawn Spike out to be an empathetic, if still difficult, character.

But while still an enjoyable tribute to Milligan, Surviving Spike is too bitty – especially in the first half – to be a brilliant piece of theatre in its own right. Whatever you feel about Barrymore, this is a hurdle more difficult to surmount.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Windsor, February 6, 2008

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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