John Cleese: The Alimony Tour

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

Well, at least he’s honest about it. John Cleese isn’t back on tour because he just loves making people laugh, or because he’s got some vital message he just has to spread. He needs the cash, pure and simple.

Following his $20million divorce from third wife Alyce Faye Eichelberger, Cleese is pleading penury, forced out on the road to scrape together a living, when he’d rather be at home with a good book, enjoying his hard-earned retirement.

There is a slight feeling that with the flagrantly money-making Alimony Tour that he’s done just enough to get by. He’s gone for the simplest route; a straightforward retelling of his rise to fame, full of all the anecdotes he’s polished over five decades of interviews and chat-show appearances. Hell, he hasn’t even bothered to learn the script, reading his lines from a none-too-discreet autocue. Perhaps at 71, learning almost two hours of material is too much of a strain, even if it is based on your own life – not that Cleese otherwise shows any sign of age, as convivial in his performance as you might expect.

That good humour softens what might otherwise be a acidic, barbed demonisation of his money-grasping harridan of an ex-wife and her grotesque lawyers. It’s personal, even nasty, but his indignant bitterness seems justifiable, and he delivers it with a smile, albeit one through gritted teeth.

But this is atypical of a warm, upbeat stroll through Cleese’s life which – by this sanitized account – appears delightfully charmed. Born into a poor but honest (‘the worst possible combination’) family in wartime Weston-super-Mare, it’s obvious that the rigid class hierarchy and a morbid threat of ever doing anything embarrassing would later prove the well from which he drew his comedy. His father even changed the family name from Cheese to avoid ridicule.

Cleese has, of course, always represented that rather formal establishment figure; and we’ve seen him play a headmaster-type character so often that this almost feels like an entertaining school assembly; educating, informing and entertaining. Occasionally he meanders down a little psychoanalytical aside, such as his relationship with his depression-prone mother, but largely this is a ‘My Showbiz Life’ story of after-dinner anecdotes,

He found a gift for humour when at school, when jokes could deflect attention from his tall frame, and joined the Footlights at Cambridge, when he was overshadowed by Bill Oddie and Tim Brook-Taylor. From thereon, fans will know his history: The Frost Report, Python, Fawlty (inspired by a trip to a notoriously appalling real-life hotel) Wanda – although some achievements, from I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again to Clockwise – are ignored.

With a CV like that, it’s no wonder there’s plenty of love for Cleese. Even mention of a phrase such as ‘Cheese Shop’ provokes titters throughout the room. There’s a feeling that his audience have gathered plenty of entertainment from reciting Cleese’s work on their own – so being in the presence of such magnificence is reward enough, never mind that they’ve heard or read his well-polished anecdotes time and again.

Perhaps because of this, the show gets particularly lazy in the second half, when it becomes a live version of one of those cheap TV clip shows. Cleese introduces plenty of extracts of his work, all of which you’ll have seen repeated ad infinitum on digital TV, with only a minimal nod to context. There’s an occasional aside about the psychology of bad-taste comedy, or how the world of entertainment has changed (Python was commissioned for a 13-part series on a single BBC exec’s whim, without anyone having much of an idea what the show would actually be), but nothing too substantial.

Yet although Cleese is merely going though the motions, the show proves decently entertaining. He’s got a few sharp lines in the mix, and his delivery, timing, and emphasis remain unrivalled. He’s selling tickets based on the idea you’ll want to spend a couple of hours in his good company, and that’s exactly what you get; no more or no less.

Review date: 4 May 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Cambridge Corn Exchange

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