Review: “Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall” – Hampstead Theatre

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My best friend W is a big Spike Milligan fan, and after reading the positive review of this show in the Metro (and seeing tickets could be had for a mere 15 quid), I was up and raring to go to the great wild north, wherein the mysterious and previously unvisited venue called the Hampstead Theater could be found. I was going to be fresh off of a week in Greece, but no matter, I was eager to plunge back into a cold, dark room while the English summer continued weakly attempting to throw a few rays of sunshine at us.

Per W, this show is pretty much thoroughly lifted from Milligan’s war memoirs (which he’s read ten times), with lots of recognizable bits for the faithful to enjoy. And the theater seemed packed with said faithful – lots of the 50 through 70+ year old set had come out for a show which was by someone I’m guessing they were familiar with (me, as an American, less so, and really only through W) as well as a topic they related to (more or less). In fact, the whole thing had the air of a successful venture (it looked sold out from where we sat) for a very community-based theater.

I, however, had only the shows actual merits to go on, and I read it as a pretty light series of sketches held together with a fair bit of good music. The “story,” as such (there’s not much to it), is about Milligan’s WWII experience, from being drafted to fighting (or, rather, waiting) in North Africa to finally going to Italy and then (I think) Berlin. He mostly stays with his small and tight unit, all of whom play instruments (not sure if this was for real or not – he was a gunner, but was he also an entertainer?). Between recollections of trying to stave off boredom while standing in a hole and while hanging out in the bunkroom, the band perform various comic songs and do skits. It kind of read to me like a base-generated entertainment to raise morale, but I wasn’t sure if it actually was based on his experiences or just something they came up with to fill the time between the actual memoir bits.

Overall, I enjoyed this show for what it was – a lighthearted and highly musical rendition of one man’s experience in the war. I liked it more for just how very common I felt like his experience was – it was just one soldier among thousands (or even millions), though he and his unit appeared to have much better luck than a lot of other ones. However, Milligan’s actual smart-alecky cracks were distracting to me – I found it hard to believe a guy could spend four years sounding like he walked off the set of a situation comedy. Still, the music was good, the physical comedy was fun to watch, and the performers were both impressive singers and musicians. I’d recommend it if you were looking for a fun night out – with nearly a total lack of the tragedy you might expect for a play set during a war.

(“Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall” continues at the Hampstead Theater through Saturday, August 22nd, 2009. This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, August 17th.)

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4 Responses to “Review: “Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall” – Hampstead Theatre”

  1. W Says:

    Milligan never made it to Berlin, and indeed only saw active service from Jan 1943 – Jan 1944. He was invalided out on psychiatric grounds some time after the shell shock incident. The scene in the blue uniforms seems to correspond with his time in Italy at an Army rehabilitation camp. After that, he toured as part of an entertainment troupe.

    All of the skits and wisecracks are straight from the books, although they’ve been jazzed up somewhat. Given Milligan’s reputation, it’s entirely possible everything really was said at the time.

  2. W Says:

    Oh, and anyone who wants to see where the play’s going to be when it leaves Hampstead can follow it at http://twitter.com/spikeswar

    Webcowgirl’s characterisation of it as a military revue is spot on – it feels a bit slipshod and slow, but it’s still great fun, and probably takes a lot from the gigs and ENSA shows that Milligan performed in during (and after) the war.

  3. David Gerard Says:

    Milligan stresses in the later books that he actually tried to make the diaries as accurate as possible, looking up the weather on each day, etc.

    He was also a jazz musician and was with a pile of other musicians, so they may well have been playing.

  4. J Says:

    I watched the play yesterday afternoon at the Oxford Playhouse and thoroughly enjoyed it-and so you know, they really are playing the instruments. Either that, or they are world class mimers…

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