Monty Python's Spamalot
Eric Idle and John Du Prez
Opera House, Manchester
Review by David Chadderton
Spamalot in a way follows in the current trend of musicalising popular films, but it is quite a different animal to the other examples of this trend on Broadway and the West End.
Based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the first trip to the big screen (apart from a sketch compilation film) for the group of TV comedy sketch writers back in 1975, the story and characters are taken from the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. However the film was still really a set of sketches that just happened to be set in medieval Britain and which usually involved Arthur or one of his knights.
Nearly thirty years later, Python Eric Idle's musical adaptation with composer John Du Prez tightened the plot a little by having some of the characters in the famous scenes ('Bring Out Your Dead', 'Constitutional Peasants') turn out to be Lancelot, Galahad, Robin and Bedevere who become Arthur's knights while still retaining the randomness and unpredictability that is unmistakably Python. The original score was a little light on songs for a musical, so adding to 'Brave Sir Robin' from Robin's minstrel and a much enhanced 'Knights of the Round Table' are a host of songs that either relate to the plot, such as it is, or send up conventions in musical theatre, plus Python hit 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' is stolen from Life of Brian and crowbarred into the story.
The result is a show that works as popular entertainment better than some of the more obscure or cerebral Python humour but has retained most of the scenes that Python fans will recognise pretty much word-for-word. It's the sort of show in which you may find members of the audience speaking the dialogue along with the actors more than singing along with the songs. For real Python fans, there are brief references to 'The Parrot Sketch', 'The Lumberjack Song' and 'Ministry of Silly Walks' to try and spot, along with more modern references such as brief appearances from Ozzy Osbourne and Susan Boyle and topical gags that are obviously regularly updated.
Graham Chapman was superb at being the relatively innocent person that everything happened to in both Holy Grail and Brian; and in this production comedian Marcus Brigstocke does a good job of being that central, passive character with a touch of arrogance and good comic delivery. Todd Carty is his slave Patsy who bangs the coconuts together when they travel; he has a great line in facial expressions (very like Terry Gilliam's in the film) and gives a slightly restrained delivery of 'Bright Side of Life'.
As the various knights and other characters, Robin Armstrong is Sir Bedevere, Samuel Holmes a slightly camp Sir Robin, David Langham a very camp Prince Herbert, Simon Lipkin is Sir Dennis Galahad and Graham MacDuff is brave Sir Lancelot. All play many other parts as well, and despite the broad comedy they all show some beautifully subtle and restrained touches to their comic delivery.
Subtlety is something that Jodie Prenger can certainly not be accused of as, in her role as Lady of the Lake, she obviously relishes the opportunity to cut loose and really overact. Her role is to provide the main metatheatrical touches, if you want to be technical, with songs like 'The Song That Goes Like This' that sends up the passionate love duet and 'The Diva's Lament' in which she complains of not being on stage for a while. Her big voice and big acting are perfect for the role.
Hugh Durrant's design is a simple, multifunctional set that works very well for every scene, but there are some great effectsespecially the Black Knight whose arms and legs are chopped offand other elements from the film are cleverly transformed into stage items, such as the wooden rabbit, the killer rabbit, the cow and much more.
But would real Python fans like it or feel betrayed by this blatant commercialisation of the sketches they have been reciting to one another for 35 years? Well, speaking personally, this Python fan loved it and felt that it was exactly in the spirit of the original, which found unique ways to link together barely-related sketches rather than constructing real plots, while still being accessible to a wider audience. It's all huge fun, and you will be unlikely to see another show that crams quite as much into two hours as this one, which even ends with a singalong complete with song sheet.
To 10th July, 2010
Velda Harris reviewed this production at the Lyceum, Sheffield.