Thursday, 13 January 2011

'Tis a Silly Show!

Monty Python’s Spamalot
The Ambassador Theatre Group Ltd
New Victoria Theatre, Woking
20-25 September 2010

Because the musical ‘lovingly ripped off from’ Monty Python and the Holy Grail is co-written by Eric Idle, it retains the essence of Flying Circus, while introducing a new musical theatre element. From the opening scene of the peasants debating the flight mechanics of different swallows, interrupted by King Arthur, his faithful servant Patsy, and his invisible steed (represented, of course, by clattering coconut shells) we are in familiar territory.

Much of the enjoyment of the show comes from working out how on earth they can stage your favourite scenes, such as the Black Knight (‘it’s just a flash wound’); the killer rabbit; the Knights who say ‘Ni’. These are all excellently and amusingly rendered with the correct amount of silliness, although the witch burnings are sadly cut ‘for health and safety reasons’.

Plenty of dialogue is lifted directly from the film, so you know what they are going to say next, but they do it so well! King Arthur is the lead as he never was in the film, and stand-up comic Marcus Brigstocke’s quick wit, comedy timing and audience-interaction are spot-on. Todd Carty may forever be Tucker Jenkins to my mind, but he also makes a credible Patsy, by both name and nature faithfully following his master. Hayley Tamaddon is simply brilliant as the Lady of the Lake – a demanding diva with a powerful voice and overpowering ego.

All the actors double up, as they did in the original, to play minstrels, mothers, fathers, French taunters, various other knights, and Tim the Enchanter. The sets are superb, and the clever use of staging makes steps across the stage seem like epic treks. Costumes and choreography are equally glitzy and flash, especially in the riotous He is Not Dead Yet or the sumptuously silly Knights of the Round Table. While this is a first-rate feel-good musical, it also mocks the entire genre and ridicules an art-form that attempts to take itself seriously.

One of the tasks that the knights must perform to obtain the Holy Grail (along with producing a shrubbery and chopping down a tree with a herring) is to perform a hit musical. In the song, You Won’t Succeed in Showbiz they regret that they won’t be able to rise to this challenge as it doesn’t matter how good your actors, songs or show is; no one will come and see it if you haven’t got a star. This tongue-in-cheek attitude (as they are surrounded by stars of stage and screen) is carried through to the singing of I’m All Alone by the entire company.

In her fairy godmother moment, the Lady of Lake delivers Find Your Grail; a delightful climb-every-mountain-achieve-your-dream song. Hayley Tamaddon is equally impressive in her sardonic duet with Marcus Brigstocke; The Song that Goes Like This, which mines every cliché of the Andrew Lloyd-Webber songbook, because as we all know, “Once in every show/ There comes a song like this/ It starts off soft and low/ And ends up with a kiss”. Her scene-stealing moment, however, is The Diva's Lament in which she bemoans her lack of stage-time; “Whatever happened to my part? It was exciting at the start. Now we're halfway through Act 2/ And I've had nothing yet to do.”

It is that absurdity that makes the show what it is; in fact King Arthur reflects, “Let’s not go to Camelot; ‘tis a silly place”. The cheap puns are duly groaned at from the expensive forest rather than an extensive one, to a cymbal chiming when King Arthur requests a symbol. Sir Lancelot (a versatile Graham MacDuff) pondering why someone has swallowed the missing mug when the knights are asked to search for the grail within themselves, is something you might hear down the pub, if you lived in a village with a load of very funny and irreverent inhabitants. The humour only misses its mark on one occasion – the stereotypical gay characters are dated enough to remind you that the author is from the Are You Being Served? generation.

On the whole, however, this is a high-energy, fast-paced show with an electric blend of highbrow and slapstick humour. The second act opens with Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, even though it is from The Life of Brian. This can be forgiven, as it adds to the overwhelming feel-good factor of the old-fashioned, entertaining musical – as they used to be before they got too bombastic.

Incidentally, I was lucky enough to go to an ‘assisted performance’ where a lady interpreted the whole show through sign language at the side of the stage. Although I don’t speak any sign language (apart from a couple of select words taught to me by my cousin), I found her compulsive viewing. She did a brilliant job of delivering the spoken word to another audience and her performance of the new expression from the Knights who no longer say ‘Ni’ was spectacular.

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