Spike Milligan's comic novel gets theatrical reworking

Legendary Anglo-Irish comedian Spike Milligan once said Puckoon would be his ‘first and last novel’. The late comic genius and creator of The Goon Show referred to it as ‘that damn book that nearly drove me mad’. Yet Milligan’s offbeat tale of rural Irish life has entertained generations of readers since its publication in 1963.

The story, set in 1924, tells of chaos in the southern town of Puckoon after the Boundary Commission incompetently draws the new border between Northern Ireland and the Free State through its middle. Zany tangents develop as the townsfolk struggle to get their beer on the cheap side of the pub and procure passports in order to bury the recently deceased.

The book has sold over five million copies to date, and a movie version was made in 2002 starring Sean Hughes and Griff Rhys Jones. But it has taken until this year for Puckoon to be produced for the stage. And Northern Ireland’s own Big Telly Theatre Company are the ones who have done it, working closely with Spike’s daughter, Jane Milligan.

Director Zoë Seaton describes the results as ‘The Goon Show meets Flann O’Brien meets Little Britain’, and says she was delighted to collaborate with Spike’s daughter: ‘We met Jane in London to work on the script and she was great, giving us a real insight into what Spike would have liked. It also helped to keep the Milligan stamp on things.’

Big Telly was set up in 1987 and is now Northern Ireland’s longest-established professional theatrical company. Puckoon is their latest challenging project; previously they’ve adapted Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Seamus Heaney’s Bog Poems, as well as staging ‘water theatre’ tours of Sinbad and The Little Mermaid in leisure centres across the country.

For their production of Puckoon the creative team endeavoured to balance the novel’s integral madness with the demands of a modern theatre audience, casting an eclectic ensemble of traditional actors, comedians, clowns and musicians.

‘It would have been easy to do it with six young drama school actors,’ says Zoë, ‘but we wanted it to have an anarchic feel. Spike was keen on letting the audience in on jokes, so although you want it to be slick you want the audience to engage with the spontaneity of the piece, and the difficulty of it as well.

‘You kind of want to see it going a bit wrong.’

The troupe spent most of January rehearsing at Big Telly’s base in Portstewart before debuting last weekend at the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh. The show will now tour the country, playing in Enniskillen, Armagh, Coleraine, Strabane, Belfast and Downpatrick.

Zoë says she was surprised by the level of interest in Puckoon, and the depth of affection held for it. ‘I was amazed,’ she says. ‘I thought it was an obscure little book, but a lot of people remember reading it and laughing out loud, and it’s got its own cult following.’

The novel is also famous for taking irreverent pops at the British, the Irish and… well, everybody. But Zoë feels today’s audiences are sophisticated enough to take Milligan’s politically incorrect flourishes in their stride.

‘It was written in the 1960s,’ she says, ‘and you’ve got a Jewish character with a big nose, and a panto-style Chinese policeman. That’s something we’re not used to nowadays. But we wanted to be true to the book, and we also remember what Spike said: “I’m not racist, I hate everybody.”

‘If an English company was doing it we might be worried about the stereotypical treatment of British soldiers and Irish “layabouts”, but because we’re from Northern Ireland it doesn’t bother us at all. I don’t think it’s offensive because the characters are all equally insane.’

Puckoon has been recommended for audiences aged 14 and over. 

Puckoon is on tour across the country. Check out Culture Live! for full listings

Andrew Johnston