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No Naughty Bits

Steve Thompson
Hampstead Theatre
(2011)

Taking on Pythons always requires bravery. On this occasion, the maxim applies as much to playwright Steve Thompson as the American TV network ABC, which took the comedic variety to court in 1975.

In the former case, it is always a risk to create a play around comic icons, as the writer will inevitably be compared with the geniuses whom he attempts to portray and utilise for his own devices.

By the incredibly high standards to which he has chosen to aspire, Steve Thompson has mixed success. No Naughty Bits is intermittently funny but lacks coherence and probably tries to do rather too much with a limited premise.

This is based on a bizarre court case that took place in New York in 1975, when the Monty Python crew, represented by polar opposites Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam, took the megalithic ABC to court over cuts to the scripts of their final series.

After the iconic foot falls to set the scene followed by a few warm-up jokes, the action is initiated by the team's fresh-faced American promoter Nancy, played by Charity Wakefield. She persuades Harry Haddon-Paton's anal Michael to join mad Terry (Sam Alexander) in a jaunt to request an injunction against the network. It may all sound unlikely but is apparently based on reality.

The ill-matched duo and their sweet accomplice are teamed up with hard-nosed attorney Osterberg, wittily played by a suitably straight-faced Clive Rowe. He briefs them on tactics but somehow fails to mention either his own fees or the potentially damaging consequences for the already impecunious actors.

Their confrontation with a pair of humourless TV executives played by director Edward Hall's wife Issy van Randwyck and Joseph May hardly goes to plan. Suddenly, an unanticipated court case with every chance of defeat looms large. If nothing else, this scene is a perfect opportunity to run through a series of sketches deemed obscene by the self-appointed censors whose only concern is ratings and the advertising money that they generate.

The play only really gets into gear after the interval when we arrive in a court presided over by Matthew Marsh playing a judge who is consistently funnier than anybody else in the play. He has the wisdom of Solomon and the wit of John Cleese but his ruling is not what our putative heroes would have wished for.

An extremely contrived meeting between Palin and the judge on the subway mysteriously leads to an appeal. This though is rushed through in the seconds, as if the playwright had been allotted two hours 20 minutes and not a second more.

Steve Thompson, who has recently deserted the stage to write episodes of Sherlock and Doctor Who, has penned a conventional legal drama to illuminate an anarchic phenomenon. This culture clash doesn't really enable its targets to be hit with enough regularity to succeed.

Too much of the plot of No Naughty Bits feels contrived and inevitably; it is those extremely funny if puerile Naughty Bits that will be remembered rather than the history lesson about hidden censorship and media power politics that probably initiated the project.

Playing until 15 October

Reviewer: Philip Fisher