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ON TOUR: Bluebottle Hits Back
Do you think that a comedy show about an asylum inmate would be a west end hit? One delivered in English, Welsh, Irish (sort of), Yiddish and Rubbish. ”ON TOUR” is the editor”s opportunity of writing about what he thinks will interest readers. It”s a tour of variety rather than a variety tour. This week”s report concerns a mad exercise in comedy delivered to an audience of all ages and colours who are never quite sure what they are watching. A subtle demonstration of elegant madness, both contrived lunacy and medical mishaps. One featuring two former soldiers both destined to become knights of the realm, plus a man whose characters were so varied that he forgot who he was at times. The forth cast member plays a tall urbane gent, very British, very Lord Reith BBC, who left this world with a drink in his hand in a pub toilet in 1961.
Yes Ying Tong has arrived at the tiny Ambassadors Theatre near Leicester Square, a hilarious and touching insight into the mind of comic genius Spike Milligan, the inspiration for all comedians in the second half of the twentieth century. The Goon Show broke the mould of radio comedy taking the (very funny but essentially music hall) style of Arthur Askey and Ted Ray on to a new plain. Or if you like (and delivered in a strong Welsh accent) ”That”s not a new plane ” it”s a Boo Ing.” Ying Tong even features top ten hits, ”Little White Bull” by Tommy Steele (yes, it was top of the hit parade 40 years ago ” fashions have changed) and Neddie Seegoons awe inspiring ”If I Ruled the World”. Plus of course the venerable hymn to the Goons, after which the show is named, ”The Ying Tong Song”, not written by those masters of lyrics Oscar Hammerstein and Paul McCartney.
In the 1950”s the Goon Show was a revelation to all the latent eccentrics who populated the UK. Goon Show humour bridged political persuasion, the British class system. Academics, white-collar workers, blue-collar workers and even those just wearing vests all shared in the crazy, zany antics of Bluebottle, Eccles and Neddie et al.
Ying Tong begins with Spike Milligan planning a pyjama-clad escape from a mental institution in order to write the greatest ever episode of The Goon Show. After making an outlandish effort to reclaim his marbles (”Oh yes, cunning words these”) from the British Museum, Milligan's grip on reality loosens further as he threatens to kill Eccles, probably The Goon Show's most iconic character. Infused with finely observed Goon-style comedy and featuring a magnificently convoluted plot, Ying Tong also explores the darker side of Milligan's mind, which was famously beset with depression. It is well known that the pressures of writing The Goon Show placed much mental pressure on Milligan, a fact which lies at the heart of Ying Tong as he asks his fellow Goons whether producing marvellous new Goon Shows is worth sacrificing his sanity.
Written by Roy Smiles and directed by Michael Kingsbury Yong Tong has a cast of simply splendid repertory actors with perhaps Christian Patterson, surely the son of Ned, truly outstanding. He”s big too, like the younger (Sir) Harry Secombe. James Clyde hovers as Spike Milligan (legally an Irishman and made an honorary knight in his last days ” number one fan Prince Charles obviously getting his own back). Peter Temple delivers Peter Sellers with gusto and doom even the far from Goon (or secret Goon) Dr Strangelove thrown in for good measure. Jeremy Child portrays the BBC”s Wallace Greenslade and various other characters. He”s as good as the rest.
Too young to remember the Goons? They transcend all generations and by the look of the audience, who gave a standing ovation, all countries too. All right the Aussies found them very funny. But the Japanese too? What does Ying Tong mean in the land of the Emperor?