Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall
The Black Album
Good old Spike. Wonderful, charming, innocent Spike who could skewer authority with a child’s unthinking acuity. ‘Where were you born?’ asked the recruiting sergeant when he was conscripted. ‘India,’ said Spike. ‘Which part?’ ‘All of me.’ Ben Power and Tim Carroll have had the inspired idea of sifting the highlights of Spike’s wartime diaries and turning them into a singalong comedy tribute biography. But hang on. What’s a singalong comedy tribute biography? Well, it’s a bit of memoir, some gags and sketches, a few 1940s favourites to tap along to and a deep and meaningful section where Spike’s nerves collapse and his piles explode.
Mystifyingly, the mixture flops. There’s too much of everything and not enough of anything. We start at a concert party, comically under-rehearsed, of course, then we skip to North Africa for a slice of wartime documentary, then we’re back to the concert party, then we hop over to the Italian campaign via a handful of sketchy sketches and in between we get two shoddy caricatures of Hitler and Goebbels making threadbare jokes. ‘We must win this war — or at least come second.’
This disunity, the uncertainty over whether the adaptation is a musical, a sketch show or a psychological study, proves fatal. Power and Carroll, both considerable talents, are so smitten with Milligan’s work that their worshipful state has robbed them of perspective. Two things are clear. Spike’s war books are decidedly thin (each was completed in under a week) and putting them on stage is far trickier than it looks. Back to Spike. ‘Take your clothes off and lie on the couch,’ said the medical orderly. ‘Shouldn’t you take me out to dinner first?’ Oddly, the two gags I’ve quoted haven’t made the show.
Hanif Kureishi has the same problem staging The Black Album, his 1995 novel about — you guessed it — the travails of a sceptical Muslim innocent growing up in the West. The plot focuses on a group of student hotheads who become radicalised after the Rushdie fatwa. The main character, Shahid, is the standard Kureishi creation, an Islamic Dick Whittington up from the sticks to make his fortune in London. But Kureishi hasn’t reinvented his script for the theatre and rather than giving his hero a predicament and a compelling mission he just lets him drift between various cultural influences, between self-indulgence and self-denial, the mosque and the nightclub, the prayer mat and the pot plant.
Kureishi’s elderly storyline (which blew out the candles on its 20th birthday cake last February) is brought up to date at the end with an exploding rucksack. My guess is that the National lost faith with this show before rehearsals began and trod firmly on the money-hose. Hence the wobbly set, the road-kill furniture, the glow-worm lighting and the tiny cast playing three roles apiece. The acting is patchy, but Jonathan Bonnici makes a charming Shahid, and Shereen Martineau is superbly funny — autocratic, sexy and ridiculous all at once — as his rich-bitch sister-in-law.
The show’s best feature is Kureishi’s thoughtful programme note where he argues that during the 1990s Britain successfully evolved from a monoculture into a multiculture. The triumph of liberalism over bigotry is the author’s El Alamein. No experience will ever compete with such a heroic and righteous victory. Trouble is he’s left with naff-all to say about anything else. It’s ironic that, having led the bloody fight against xenophobia in this country’s ethnic struggles, Kureishi is now declining into an English stereotype: the retired colonel, the club bore, the deaf old buffer at the wedding who begins his stories, ‘In my day...’ He’ll be writing to the Telegraph next.