Production: Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall
Venue: York Theatre Royal
Running: 16 to 20 March
If World War II comedy performed by a jazz quartet is your sort of thing, you might be on to a winner with Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall. If, as I expect is true of many of you, you have never considered the advantages of this style of theatre, you are certainly in for a pleasant surprise.
Presented in the style of a concert show – ably and often inappropriately compared by D Battery’s Major Chater Jack – Milligan and his friends moved effortlessly between sketches loosely documenting his war experience and popular and often recognisable 1940s jazz numbers. Accused of joining his unit three months late in 1940, Milligan announces: “I’ll make up for it – I’ll fight nights, as well.” The audience then follows him as he fights in North Africa and Italy, is promoted to lance bombardier, and then stripped of his rank and winds up in a psychiatric hospital.
Ben Power and Tim Carroll’s stage adaptation perfectly represents Milligan’s mad war, with Sholto Morgan’s performance as Spike perfectly combining the character’s mischievous disregard for authority with his increasing craziness and the pain of the experiences he is living through.
Although the production has some surprisingly dark undertones – the death of one of Milligan’s closest friends and his favourite officer provide some very sobering moments – it is Milligan’s recognition of the insanity of the characters’ situation that keeps the audience laughing in their seats. One scene, in which Milligan is left alone to guard a hole in the ground, is completely subverted as he demonstrates the variety of ways that soldiers would keep themselves amused, including making friends with your own weapon, standing facing every point of the compass, and talking to yourself.
Well known jazz numbers included Chattanooga Choo Choo, Ain’t Misbehavin’, In the Mood and Honeysuckle Rose, as well as a rather impressive jazz version of the Last Post, which perfectly represented the shift from serious to jovial which Milligan’s work so brilliantly encompasses.
Power and Carroll’s adaptation of Milligan’s autobiography was certainly not what I was expecting. The contrast between the emotional deaths of some of the leading characters, and the continuously joyful antics of Milligan and the other members of D Battery provides for a thoroughly enjoyable two hours, with the only actual reference to the Nazis being the characters of Hitler and Goebbels, played by cardboard cut-outs with face holes and ridiculous accents.
The final product is a hilarious and thoroughly enjoyable performance that acknowledges the darker sides of war, and then confidently ignores them to concentrate on the insanity of war and the soldiers Milligan remembers fondly.