You thought of him as a big-haired, Hawaiian-shirted master of one-liners. But it turns out, or so tonight’s story goes, that Milton Jones once worked as a spy. And maybe that makes sense – as much, at least, as anything else in this hour of brain-warping cartoon-comedy. Jones is clearly some kind of undercover agent in real life, eavesdropping on the English language and its infinite flexibilities while the rest of us merely use it. And exposure to his word- and mind-play is as destabilising as anything Le Carré threw at us. Nothing he says can be trusted. Nothing is at it seems.
In Milton Impossible, I found the experience – failing to second-guess the punchlines, enjoying the actual punchlines (so much better than I anticipated!) – delightful. The twisty little lexical tricks just keep coming, one figure-of-speech after another (“I don’t know how some people sleep at night”; “Remove cardboard sleeve and film”) plunging into the vacuum left after Jones tugs their foundations out from under them. One begins, dizzily, to doubt that any of our linguistic certainties are secure against his subversion – until Jones changes the rhythm, with an interrogation scene played out with two collapsible legs and a rotating chair, say, or a series of gnomic dialogues between UN member states.
The latter enables a rare flash of satire from Jones, as the EU’s simple question about Brexit (“how do you think it’s all going?”) elicits a very testy British response. More often, whatever Jones really thinks about the world is deeply buried in whimsy, as he strings together puns, sound effects and on-screen visual gags into an account of his wayward career in espionage.
Before the show’s rather abrupt ending, that secret service tale is tenuous in the extreme, even more so than on previous occasions when Jones has jerry-built a narrative framework for his gags. But no matter – the tenuousness is part of the fun. And the fun is abundant in a show that springs surprises from the blandest phrases and parades one bizarre image after another before your mind’s eye. He makes an unlikely spy – but you’ll leave Smiley.
Milton Jones is at the Grand, Lancaster, on Tuesday, then touring.