Spike Milligan's Puckoon

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

This stage production of Spike Milligan’s classic comic novel has put a lot of effort into capturing the Goon’s ribald mania – producing a blitzkrieg of characters, music, slapstick and wisecracks that, unfortunately, will leave you Dazed and Confused more than entertained.

Plot and character play second fiddle to noise and activity – which may be true to Milligan’s chaotic spirit, but the mistake is having too few reasons to engage with the energetic shenanigans, All that is left is bluster, albeit fast-paced flimsy bluster. The book itself has been accused of putting jokes ahead of story, and this version, from Belfast’s Big Telly Theatre Productions, only exacerbates that weakness.

The farcical action is set in 1922, as Ireland is partitioned, splitting one small community in two. With the boundary running right through the graveyard, there’s now endless red tape for the deceased.

Nominally, the central character is the feckless Dan Milligan (Jack Walsh) a lazy sod who, true to the postmodern humour of the book, breaks the fourth wall to complain to the writer (Paul Boyd) about his lot in life. But he’s rather lost under a cast of what seems like hundreds, all performed by the other four men in the ensemble – yes, even the female roles, which are achieved by adopting Monty Python-style squawks. With such an over-busy dramatis personae that includes, a clueless Catholic priest, scheming IRA smugglers, gormless bumpkins, no-nonsense pub landladies and officious army captains, subtlety of character was never going to be a priority.

This culminates in a couple of crass – if not downright racist – portrayals: money-obsessed Jewish doctor of the Chinese trainee policeman, Constable Pong, with slanted eyes and stilted dialogue that genuinely includes the line: ‘Solly, me no understand.’ You might, possibly, forgive a genius like Milligan of such insensitivity and defend it as humour of its time – but 47 years after the novel was first published, it’s unforgivably cringe-inducing.

Russell Morton, Glen Kinch, Bryan Quinn and John O’Mahoney do sterling work in jumping between all these supporting characters, and you can’t fault their technical skill in doing the best they can with Vincent Higgins’s noisy adaptation. One neat touch in this otherwise overproduced show is that everything is played out to a folksy, live soundtrack – again performed by the versatile cast – which lends a jaunty ambiance to the night.

Plenty of Milligan’s lines haven’t lost their capacity to both amuse and pick at bureaucratic nonsense. But too often, it’s simply the pace of the action that’s supposed to be funny – including such age-old tricks as one actor taking both sides of a conversation. In fact, it gets quite wearying, quite quickly.

Zany is all well and good, but here it appears so obviously rehearsed, with genuine frisson of excitement as to what will happen next. With the frenzy of lightning-fast scene and costume changes, perhaps that has to be the case. But there’s good reason why well-organised anarchy is an oxymoron.

Review date: 14 Mar 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Leicester Square Theatre

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