As anyone who knows me can attest, I'm a huge fan of British comedy. In fact, my undergraduate honors thesis compared two comedy schools, America's Second City Players and the British Oxbridge Mafia, which gave birth to Monty Python.
Naturally, I was intrigued when I received a mailer from the Wilma Theater about the play by British playwright Roy Smiles, Ying Tong: A Walk with the Goons, based on the hugely influential 1950s radio program, The Goon Show. I simply had to see it. After all, the Goons had influenced members of Monty Python, as well as an entire generation of British comedy writers and performers.
I'd put out a general announcement to friends I thought might be interested, and The Dormouse agreed to go along. We all got tickets for the Saturday matinee and met at the train station to ride into Center City Philadelphia.
On the train, we were accompanied by a number of people wearing green T-shirts and sweatshirts, their necks festooned with plastic shamrock jewelry, like they were headed for a St. Patty's Day/Mardi Gras celebration. "This should be interesting," I muttered to myself.
We arrived at the theater, located on the Avenue of the Arts at Broad and Spruce streets, with plenty of time to spare. So after checking our coats, and getting into a somewhat lengthy conversation with the coat check guy about U2 and David Bowie, The Gryphon and The Dormouse purchased refreshments and we lounged at a table in the lobby, waiting for the show to start.
I was fascinated by the photos hanging in the lobby, all from Wilma Theater productions. After guessing fruitlessly, I found a guide to all the productions. Most of them were lesser known independent or experimental productions, but a few were better known titles, such as Cyrano de Bergerac and Marat/Sade.
As we were waiting, I scoped out our fellow audience members, many of whom looked the correct age to have listened to The Goon Show in the '50s, or at least to have watched all the Peter Sellers movies during their original theater runs. However, that might have been a factor of the time we were seeing it, rather than an indication of the potential audience for the production.
When the doors opened, we took our seats, about a quarter of the way back, just to the left of center, although consindering the Wilma is a small, intimate theater, seating just under 300, any seat would have been equally good. Some of the seats had a flyer taped to them, greeting the ticket holder by name and promoting the 2008/09 season. I thought this was amusing, because we could look around at the empty seats near us and learn the names of our fellow audience members. I toyed with the idea of greeting one of them by name, pretending that I knew him or her, but then thought better of it.
Ying Tong is a two-act play involving only four actors, each of whom plays multiple parts, including the performers from The Goon Show, characters from The Goon Show, and assorted fever dreams of the Goon Show creator and writer, Spike Milligan. The name is taken from "The Ying Tong Song," a sort of anthem of the show, which you can hear performed by the original Goons here.
The play begins with the four actors performing a Goon Show into microphones suspended from the ceiling. Having listened to several episodes of the original program while researching my thesis, I can state that, if these weren't actual Goon Show lines, Roy Smiles did an excellent job of imitating the spirit of the Goons.
At the end of the radio show, Spike Milligan has a breakdown, and for the rest of the show recuperates in a mental hospital, experiencing flashbacks and fighting off tranquilizer-induced dreams, where bizarre characters gambol and taunt him.
Which reminds me. I had an interesting dream last night involving an old friend I'll call The Werewolf, a writer friend of mine who I believe has just finished his first novel. We were at some sort of strange convention, walking down a hallway. I was telling him, excitedly, how I was finally going to finish that novel I'd been writing, meaning the one with a character based on him, two unfinished novels ago. This dream was no doubt induced by a conversation I had with a friend with whom I used to work on college radio. She'd called me out of the blue this weekend, and we talked for two and a half hours, bouncing ideas off each other for co-writing a novel.
But anyway, in this dream, we were passed in the hallway by a really tall woman. She must have been close to 7 feet tall, clad only in her underwear, a pair of red kitten heels and a glitzy Vegas headdress. When we passed her, The Werewolf turned to look, and I told him that he could go talk to her if he wanted to. He told me that was OK, and urged me to continue my conversation.
So where was I? Yes, Spike Milligan's fever dreams. The play is all written in a similar voice to that of The Goon Show, which made it highly entertaining, if a bit nonsensical and frantic. This American audience benefited from the screens at either side of the stage, which I presume were there for the hearing impaired. They captioned the show line by line, and I found that if I couldn't quite make out a place name or a slang word, I could read it. Sort of like reading the annotated Shakespeare.
David Beach, who has acting credits ranging from Broadway and regional theater to TV and independent film, played Spike with a sort of deadpan humor that reminded me of Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H, the sort of character who had suffered the horrors of war and dealt with that misery through humor. Beach managed to convey incredible range, from the idiotic Eccles of The Goon Show to a man at the edge of his wits, struggling to cope with posttraumatic stress disorder.
Steve Beckingham played the multi-voiced, multitalented Peter Sellers, with whom Spike Milligan had a bitter rivalry. Spike was the creator and writer of The Goon Show, but Peter Sellers won all the fame, due to his talent for characters. Beckingham, a graduate of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, has performed in a variety of productions on both sides of the Atlantic. His portrayal of Sellers ranged from imp-like to stoic, an insightful look, I believe, at the man behind all the masks.
Ed Jewett played Harry Secombe, the modulating influence who mediated between Spike and Peter. Secombe himself shared some traits with Ned Seagoon, the character he played on The Goon Show, a patriotic, honest hero. A wartime friend of Spike, Secombe is truly the heart of the play, singing songs or cracking jokes to break the tension between the two rivals. Jewett, whose credits also range from stage to screen, played Secombe as a gentle-hearted bear, which made some of his wilder turns as off-the-wall characters even more amusing.
As announcer Wallace Greenslade, Colin McPhillamy, who acted for five seasons with The Royal National Theatre in the U.K., in addition to performing in multiple U.S. productions, doubles as an even-keeled psychiatrist, unfazed by Spike's rantings.
Throughout, the show references famous works which followed The Goon Show, such as a number of Peter Sellers movies and Secombe's best-known role to us Americans, as Beadle Bumble in Oliver! Not to mention a certain British comedy series that spawned several movies and rabid fans across the pond. ("My brain hurts!!!!")
I found it enormously helpful that the program contained an article on the history of the show, as well as interviews with playwright Roy Smiles about the play and with Michael Palin about the influence of the Goons. The program also included a "Who's Who Among the Goons," listing the major recurring characters and telling something about their quirks and characterizations, borrowed from the official Goon Show site.
The second act does drag a bit, as Spike tries to exorcise his inner demons and cope with the stress of writing a hit show. Still, the play is masterfully written and superbly acted. I was particularly impressed by the way Roy Smiles blended both comedy and tragedy. In his interview, he said, "I am obsessed, I expect, with the getting of laughter and the price those who make the world laugh pay." His goal, he said, is to pay tribute to "all the poor, fucked-up madmen and geniuses who in spite of all the personal cost inspired our laughter and made our lives richer by their being."
With Ying Tong, he's succeeded. I hope to make it to the U.S. premiere of another of his plays, Schmucks, where a struggling standup comic encounters the comic icons Groucho Marx and Lenny Bruce in a New York City diner during the great Northeast Blackout of 1965. That will be performed at the Wilma as part of their 2008 - 2009 season.
After the play, we met up in the lobby. I checked a text message that had come in during the production (thankfully, I'd had my phone set to vibrate, so it didn't disturb anyone). The message was a spam from a false addresss, inviting me to go to some trollop's Web site and see nekkid pics. Goon-inspired, I replied, "Swine! Go ride a yak the hard way!" There was no reply.
We then walked to a nearby Indian buffet, A Passage to India. As we ate, we shared our thoughts about the production. The restaurant had a big TV in the corner, turned to CNN. Every eye in the room turned to it as weekend anchor Tom Foreman did a story about the various untruths told about the current presidential candidates. Even the kitchen staff stood still and watched, as again and again, he repeated an allegation about one of the candidates and declared, "Not true," then gave the real facts. I imagined the segment turning into a Python sketch, with more and more lurid allegations being made, all of which were declared "Not true." When Foreman, instead, introduced a panel to discuss the subject, everyone went back to what they'd been doing.
Near the end of our meal, a couple guys in green dresses ran by outside, visible through the large windows. Then more and more. "It's a drag race!" I exclaimed and stood up, pressing myself against the window to see. There were a few women there, but mostly men, all of them clad in green dresses ranging from patterned sun frocks to a really elegant emerald charmeuse cocktail dress. They completed their ensembles with running shoes, although I saw a few brave souls in wedges.
Yet another hallucination of Spike Milligan's? Who can say?
Spammers who interrupt a matinee should be squished by a giant foot.