Show type: Theatre
Sets musical theatre back a thousand years!
Lovingly ripped off from the classic film comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Spamalot is directed by Oscar winning Mike Nichols, with a book by the third tallest Python, Eric Idle, and an almost but not entirely new score by Eric Idle (no relation) and John du Prez. It retells the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and features a number of gratuitously scantily clad showgirls, not to mention the cows, killer rabbits and French people.
Opened at the Shubert Theatre, New York, in March 2005 and at the Palance Theatre, London, on October 17, 2006.
Click here to buy tickets
Spamalot stamps its mark on the West End with the subtle grace of a giant animated foot squashing a renaissance angel, complete with coarse raspberry. The generation of Python fans able, and rather too willing, to quote whole sketches verbatim, will undoubtedly love its spirit. But what of everyone else?
Well, if you’re a fan of musical theatre, this bold, noisy, and irresistibly exuberant extravaganza will have you hooked. Eric Idle has bolted a broad, but accurate, parody of every West End cliché you can imagine on to the best bits from Monty Python And The Holy Grail - and somehow managed to shoehorn in Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life from a different film entirely, and even a passing nod to a certain pet shop sketch.
All the favourites are covered - the Knights Of Ni, the Killer Rabbit, the Black Knight who never knows when he’s beat, no matter how few limbs he’s left with – every one of these ridiculous scenes a welcome reminder that, at their peak, the Pythons could create comedy magic impervious to age and familiarity.
The siege of the French castle, which closes the first act, is greeted with an applause break like a guest star entering a cheesy American sitcom before the arrogant Gallic guard even opens his insult-filled mouth. To hear again the tirade of imaginative put-downs is almost worth the ticket price alone. If you can’t enjoy this, well, I fart in your general direction.
The enduring joy of the best of Python comes from the collaboration between five very different comedy minds. But Spamalot is definitely a product of an Idle imagination – the most extravagant, unpretentious vaudevillian of the quintent offering a kitsch slice of over-the-top showmanship untempered by, say, the more withering wit of Cleese and Chapman.
So no song-and-dance number can be too outrageous, from a chorus line of plague victims, to the campest gay dance this side of Heaven or even a parade of tapdancing Jews – though this latter lacks the sheer bad taste of The Producers’ Nazis or Jerry Springer The Opera’s karefully koreographed Ku Klux Klansmen, even though this is clearly the zenith Idle desperately wants to emulate.
By simply jolting from one bit of excessive nonsense to the next, without much care for what goes in between, Spamalot does blow its chance to be anything more engaging that a disparate series of sketches. The only change of pace comes in a spot-on spoof of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s manipulatively saccharine ballads The Song That Goes Like This (‘A sentimental song, that casts a magic spell/they will all hum along/we’ll overact like hell’), or the splendid The Diva’s Lament, where the Lady Of The Lake comes on to voice her complaints at the size of her part.
As the Lady who hands Arthur his Excalibur (aquatic-based exploits which, as the peasant Galahad points out, is no basis for establishing a ruling hierarchy), the unfeasibly statuesque Hannah Waddington is on spectacular, scene-stealing form, demonstrating an astonishing singing range in everything from soulful R&B to awesome Shirley-Bassey-style histrionics.
Reprising his Broadway role as King Arthur, the straightman of the piece, Tim Curry has to do what he’s made a career of doing - camp, arch gravitas, even if at times sails dangerously close to Terry-Thomas cad. Tom Goodman-Hill does a good impression of John Cleese in the parts that demand it (and JC himself makes a taped appearance, as the voice of God), and like all of the key actors has to take on a handful of roles, without anyone in the audience really noticing the versatility.
In fact, for all the spectacle, Spamalot often works best when the budget doesn’t match the ambition. Not just the doubling-up of parts, but the clever yet unconvincing way they get round the problem of making the Black Knight a quadruple amputee on stage, or the round-the-world travelling montage achieved on a shoestring, or – of course – those famous coconuts-for-horses. And, yes, you can buy your own pair in the foyer – along with a tin of special-edition Spam.
Spamalot’s a phenomenon all right – so much so that you can forgive any flaws in the spirit of anything-goes frivolity. Any show that executes every larger-than-life visual gag with such uninhibited pizzazz, or manages to rhyme ‘Camelot’ with ‘diaphragm a lot’ and not be in the least embarrassed by it, has certainly got its own unique style – and a very silly one at that.
Spamalot is booking at the Palace Theatre until May. Click here to buy tickets
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
October 17, 2006
Date of review: Oct 2006