Not The Messiah...

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

Unless you’ve been living under a rock – or a giant renaissance-art foot – you will probably be aware that this is Monty Python’s 40th anniversary. Even after all this time, the team could probably have agreed to fart the Liberty Bell theme tune and still filled the Royal Albert Hall with adoring fans, as long as it was billed as a reunion.

Instead, we had Spamalot creator Eric Idle’s latest way of reviving the franchise, a wittily-titled oratorio based on Life Of Brian, the best thing the troupe ever did. If it’s funny on film, how much funnier will it be with the full BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus to add extra welly?

The answer, inevitably, is less. In such grand setting, you only really have two jokes: the sharp contrast between the formality of the situation and the silliness of the gag, and the extravagance of scale. Messing about is engrained in the Python mindset, which has the first option well covered, but the big budget still proves more artistically limiting than a miniscule one, as Dame Edna discovered in this very venue earlier this month. What is more inventive, producing 100 harmonicas for the entire choir to play one chord – or using coconuts as horses because you can’t afford the real thing.

The hybrid’s rather an awkward one. The plot of the film is stripped back, while individual scenes such as What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us? or People’s Front Of Judea are shoehorned to fit the repetitious operatic format, which dulls their impact. Some of the arias, such as Find Your Dream and Final Song abandon comedy altogether, and are presented as rather straight-laced numbers. Nor did it help that some of the lyrics were indistinct, leaving those who didn’t shell out for a programme containing the lines at a distinct disadvantage.

But Not The Messiah never really wanted to be an oratorio. It wanted to be a lumberj… sorry, a musical, with composer John Du Prez crashing all manner of styles into the piece, from do-wop to Bob Dylan, from mariachi to a high-octane spiritualist number remarkably similar to the Blues Brothers’ Think.

Everything’s greeted with warm, affectionate laughter, even though – a brilliant sex scene played out as aria aside – not much of Not The Messiah is standalone funny. Instead it’s nostalgia for a crucial part of our comedy heritage, presented with a certain verve.

And taken on that level, it’s a success, at least trying to reinvigorate the old work with a new format rather than presenting it as a dusty museum piece. We’re here to hear all the old gags – job done – and to genuflect at the feet of the comic Messiahs, sans Cleese.

Idle is on stage for most of the show, while the others make briefer, but brilliantly-received, cameos: Palin as the cross-dressing narrator or lisping Pontius Pilate, Terry Jones being overwhelmed by the choir as he sings as a Welsh miner, Terry Gilliam in black tie for his one line, and Carol Cleveland, as always, as the token totty. The key parts were, wisely, taken by proper singers: tenor William Ferguson taking over Graham Chapman’s Brian, for instance.

There’s an irony that while the key idea behind Brian is to think individually and not to follow prophets, tonight is an act of collective worship, with faithful fans willing to parrot their favourite lines as one.

On that score, the night delighted, as expected, and as evidenced by the number, and volume, of curtain calls. Not even Handel could write a show-stopper like Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life. So for all the flaws in the production, the audience stepped out into the West London drizzle with a satisfied nostalgic glow and a jolly song in their heart. This wasn’t an oratorio, it was a party. And you know, it might just make a really good film…

Review date: 25 Oct 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Royal Albert Hall

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