REVIEW: A Sockful of Custard (Pleasance Theatre) ★★★

Spike Milligan (1918-2002) was a complex genius driven by a mania forever on the edge of collapsing into darkness. On the centenary of the comedy legend’s birth, this new two-hander by Chris Larner and Jeremy Stockwell follows the same tense line. A Sockful of Custard is an affecting, warm, heartfelt tribute, at times uncomfortable, edgy and chaotic. It takes a loosely chronological sift through Milligan’s life, from being born in India to an Irish military man and a British mother, through his childhood in South London and first itches for the stage, his war service 1940-45 and his subsequent career as a creative titan and awkward national treasure.

Diagnosed with the comedy writer’s “severe inflammation of the 30-minute structure” Milligan suffered intermittent nervous collapses from overwork, not surprising given in nine years from 1951-60 he wrote most of the 250 episodes of The Goon Show, as well as co-starring with Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers. Milligan battled with bipolar disorder throughout his life, and it’s timely to be reminded of this in the context of the current national drive to promote awareness of male mental health:

Woven in with the biography and fun fourth-wall-busting antics are Chris and Jeremy’s personal encounters with Spike. They may be the last generation to have grown up with him. Jeremy once sent him a ‘knee toupee’. Chris met him at a party in his last year of life and played him a song he’d written for him, the sweetly whimsical ‘You Can’t Dead An Eccles’, about which Milligan said “That’s a very funny idea—a bit like life.”

You don’t have to be a Milligan obsessive to enjoy the show, but you have to at least accept the substance of his reputation if you haven’t seen his work. It conveys his dark mania very movingly. In a tense meta-discussion about the nature of comedy as rule breaking and surprise, it is at pains to point out it’s not a lecture. Their songs, physical action, and modern self-aware thesp humour sometimes land more successfully than the Goon stuff which, no matter how game-changing it was for comedy, after three quarters of a century can seem a bit declamatory.

Writer and musician Chris Larner pulls together the elements of a varied show with sensitivity and integrity. Jeremy Stockwell is adept at the subtle balancing act of portraying the small nuances of larger than life characters. He’s just come from Terry Johnson’s KEN at the Bunker, presenting Ken Campbell’s charismatic joie de folie with just a slight tingle of his irritatingness. His Goon impressions are faultless and his Milligan is perfectly observed with that beautiful, alarming sadness in his eyes best summed up as “When Spike smiled, it looked like he was crying.”

Review by AJ Dehany


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