ying tong

Ying TongI went to a performance of Ying Tong – A Walk with the Goons in Wollongong last night.

It’s a terrific piece with a great cast, led by Geoff Kelso (an actor who has long specialised in playing “exceedingly silly”) as the late, lamented Spike Milligan, a true master of comedy.

Spike is in an English mental hospital just when his Goon Show colleagues (Jonathan Biggins as Peter Sellers, David James as Harry Secombe and Tony Harvey as Wallace Greenslade) want him to write one more series of the anarchic and hugely influential comedy radio show.

I very much grew up with the Goons, listening to them on weekend radio, adopting the various characters and finding friendship with like-minded souls similarly addicted.

When you look at the principal performers’ subsequent work, it’s not hard to see that the Goon Show was an incredibly fortuitous melding of comic forces.

And of course, the Goons paved the way for the Monty Python crew and a host of other comics who redefined British comedy in the latter half of the 20th century.

This play examines the personal cost to Spike, the show’s main writer.

I found it unsettling to think about the whole “you have to be crazy to write crazy comedy” scenario that so nearly lost Mr Milligan to us altogether.

It’s hard to work out whether he was already unbalanced (perhaps by his English/Indian/Burmese upbringing and/or his WWII experiences) or lost touch with reality somewhere further along the track.

It was also very emotional for me to think that someone who brought me such joy and laughter during my formative years was in so much pain.

It’s also very pertinent for anyone involved in creative work (which web designing very definitely is) to think about the costs of that creativity – to themselves and their families.

Ying Tong is brilliantly written and would be worth seeing with any cast, but I do think they have found a near-perfect Australian group of performers.

It was nice to catch up with Tony Harvey, with whom I worked when we were both puppeteers for the Marionette Theatre of Australia some 24 years ago. He has a terrific stage presence – I doubt whether very many blokes that big in a dress and headscarf could bring home the emotional truth of Spike’s wife leaving him.

I also know Jonathan Biggins from his days in Newcastle, where his family was a major force in the local arts community. Peter Sellers is a tough role to play – he comes across as a hugely talented individual prepared to sacrifice Spike’s sanity for his own career. Biggins does it brilliantly.

Being the father of a three-year-old and a six-year-old, I know David James best from his Playschool appearances. Some will also recognise him from many (many, many) TV adverts. While not quite blessed with Harry Secombe’s formidable girth (the self-described Sir Cumference), James plays him to the hilt: the likeable, confident Welshman who forged a deep friendship with Spike during their military stint and also recognised Peter Sellers’ remarkable talents.

And Geoff Kelso. He must have drooled when he read this script. Not only can he be as silly as only Spike Milligan can be, but he gets to go deep beneath the performer’s facade to wrestle with the fears that beset all the greatest creative artists. It’s a standout performance. I suspect Spike would have approved.

Ying Tong is still touring the country – see it if you can.