Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Ying Tong: A Walk with the Goons
Before "Monty Python's Flying Circus" took the United Kingdom by storm, there was "The Goon Show." A product of WWII veteran Spike Milligan's twisted imagination, the goons were a 1950s mainstay on BBC radio, featuring the talents of Milligan himself, Harry Secombe, announcer Wallace Greenslade and the then-little-known Peter Sellers, the show's man of a hundred voices. As Milligan claims in Roy Smiles's play Ying Tong: A Walk with the Goons, the show "was never meant to be a rave. It was meant to be a cult," yet rave it was, inspiring future generations of comics, Monty Python included. But "The Goon Show" came to an end when its creator suffered a nervous breakdown, and it is this breakdown that Ying Tong explores, creating an imaginary romp through Milligan's mind as he struggles to put himself back together and put the Goons to rest once and for all.
To be fair, I must admit I have never been a fan of this particular brand of British humor. I find Monty Python to be occasionally amusing, but not really out-and-out funny, as many do. This was very much my reaction to the Wilma Theatre's U.S. premiere of Ying Tong: occasionally amusing, but I did not share the open laughter of much of the audience.
I can't fault the talent onstage, though. David Beach gives a solid performance as Spike Milligan, at turns bullying friend and cowed mental patient. Ed Jewett portrays an endearing Secombe; Steven Beckingham is especially good in all of Sellers's incarnations; and, while Colin McPhillamy's Greenslade was the group's straight man, his is perhaps the most genuine performance onstage. Likewise, director Jiri Zizka threads his way through the maze of Milligan's mind very well, making the distinction between the hospital room and delusion sharply clear where necessary, and cleverly allowing the audience to wonder whether they are watching hallucination or reality whenever Milligan himself could not make such distinctions.
The production values were uniformly strong. Jerold R. Forsyth's lighting is some of his most creative and fun that I have seen from him since the Wilma's production of Outrage two years ago, and Janus Stefanowicz's costumes were well-suited to the "real" characters and wickedly funny when Milligan leaves reality behind, the most notable occasion of which is when Milligan is visited by two leprechauns and, yes, a Jewish leprechaun. And everything plays out on a superb set by David P. Gordon, which maneuvers effortlessly between radio studio, mental hospital, and the inside of Milligan's mind.
No, everything is in place at the Wilma for an A-list production ... and yet, it is the script itself that is lacking. In an interview with the Philadelphia City Paper, playwright Smiles describes the "madness, speed and anarchic drivel" of the Goons, and unfortunately the script lives in that mode throughout. Milligan faces some very powerful inner demons, from national identity to faith to writer's block, and, most of all, he grapples with his time spent in the war. This haunts him most of all; memories of bombings and deaths around him torment him, and since he cannot find a reason for it all, he cannot leave it behind.
Strong as these issues are, and as relevant as they always will be, the tone of the play never really varies. Even moments when there is genuine interaction present, where Secombe, say, comes to the hospital to spend time looking in on his friend, even these moments read like ... well, like a "Goon Show" skit. Intimate conversations play out the same way as episodes where Milligan goes after Sellers with a potato peeler. It may well be that Smiles is trying to show how the Goons never truly leave Milligan alone, how in his madness every facet of his life has come to feel like nothing more than an absurd episode of his own creation, but it prevents the audience from investing in Milligan's journey out of that madness. Finally, at the end, we are rewarded with a beautiful monologue as Milligan strives to reclaim himself, but it is too little too late. While the Wilma's Ying Tong is fueled by talent on all sides of the production team, in the end it is neither an outright comedy nor a genuine investigation into the heart of a man fighting to make sense of where he's been and where he's going. Instead, it is a presentational, occasionally amusing, expanded radio skit that leaves me wondering why the author felt this story was one that so desperately needed telling.
Ying Tong: A Walk with the Goons runs through March 16. For tickets and show times, call 215-546-7824, or visit www.wilmatheater.org.
Cast (in alphabetical order)