Jinnistan, Oran Mor, Glasgow ***
Spike Milligan is one of the great, troubled geniuses of British comedy, and Spike, by Private Eye’s Ian Hislop and writer and cartoonist Nick Newman, is an affectionate tribute. It’s 1952 and The Goon Show is making (radio) waves across post-war Britain. The public love it, but the BBC old guard think it’s too chaotic and vulgar. They also don’t like the fact that it references the war – one critic astutely described it as “shellshock on radio” – which they would rather forget.
Milligan, the show’s main writer, isn’t able to enjoy its success. While fellow Goons Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe seem to be enjoying themselves as much as the audience, he feels underappreciated and underpaid, remains traumatised by his war experiences and has a tendency to disappear when a deadline approaches. Undertaking his own war against the BBC, Milligan edges closer and closer to breakdown.
Robert Wilfort holds the centre of the show with a superb performance as Milligan, as brittle as he is quick-witted, unable to resist a one-liner even when the joke is on his boss. The other characters orbit around him painted in broad brushstrokes: Patrick Warner as the suave, womanising Sellers, Jeremy Lloyd a little too giggly as Secombe.
James Mack is superb as The Goons’ long-suffering producers, Denis Main-Wison and Peter Eton, Robert Mountford predictable – if entirely recognisable – as the light entertainment exec who vastly overestimates his own ability to be funny. Ellie Morris doesn’t get enough to do as Milligan’s long-suffering first wife.
Paul Hart’s fast-moving production zips around the story, from war flashback to studio to the Grafton Arms pub. There are interludes in the sound effects department, another important area of Goon innovation – Margaret Cabourne-Smith is excellent as the put-upon foley artist. Milligan’s struggles to write are captured in zany movement sequences choreographed by Anjali Mehra. The script never quite soars, and one suspects the show’s real conflict is the one in Milligan’s head rather than the argy-bargy with BBC bosses, who would have been crazy to axe a show so popular. But for those too young to remember The Goons, it’s a meticulous and fond recreation of one of the most influential comedy shows ever, which still looks anarchic today. For those who do remember, one only has to look at the audience to see it was a joy.
Jinnistan, the second play by actor, writer and Scotistan podcast host Taqi Nazeer, opened at Oran Mor on Halloween, billed as “a South Asian inspired paranormal horror based on a true story”. Malik (played by Nazeer) has had to relocate to his home village in Pakistan with his wife and daughter to care for his sick mother. A year on, she has died, but the family is struggling: Malik is withdrawn, Layla strung out and teenage Asiya just wants to play loud music and argue with her mother about wearing lipstick.
Asiya, however, is beset by something worse than a dose of teenage stroppiness. Malik’s family has a spooky secret (which I won’t give away, even though Nazeer as good as explains it in the opening scene) and the couple have to join together to save their daughter from a greater evil – if they can.
Directed by Niloo-Far Khan, Jinnistan is part Halloween comedy, part family drama about living between cultures. There are solid performances from all three actors, particularly Avita Jay as Layla, and Nazeer writes well about the elision of the two cultures, letting the languages of Scotland and Pakistan ebb and flow in family conversations.
The meshing of realism and the paranormal sits awkwardly, though Ross Kirkland’s lighting punches above its weight in this regard. There are some solid laughs, but not enough surprises to make it truly scary. The ghost story tropes are well signposted, even when they’re happening in a different culture.
Spike is at the King’s Theatre until tomorrow; Jinnistan is at Oran Mor until tomorrow, then at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 8-12 November