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On Tour until 21 April 2012
Who doesn’t know the story of King Arthur and his knights of the round table? No matter, whatever you know or think you know about Arthur and company is thrown gleefully out the window in Spamalot, ‘a new musical lovingly ripped off from Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ as the programme boasts.
There’s much laughter of recognition here, but it’s in honour of the humour of our old friends from telly, the irreverent, ever irrepressible Monty Python. Python’s comedy scenarios were largely based on two everyday occurrences – misunderstandings and one up’s man-ship. Throw in the still thriving, distinctly dysfunctional English class system, intolerance, especially as it relates to national pride, and a good measure of bureaucratic red tape and you’ve got a winning recipe for self examination through laughter, if you’re capable of laughing at yourself and the society surrounding you. Much healthier than the cheap shot, mocking style of decidedly unfunny, oft unkind comedy that tends to pack them in today!
If you’ve ever seen the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) then you already know the plot-line, if any, of this musical. However, you couldn’t possibly know its’ songs or could you? You might think you know them when you first hear them because they’re all send ups of atypical musical numbers, one of which, that is reprised more than once, is actually titled, ‘A Song Like This’ because it is ‘too long’ and admittedly, with a knowing grin, far too soppy! While it is good fun taking the Mickey out of the usual musical song formats, especially those played for ultra-dramatic effect, the idea might have worn a bit thin were it not for the show’s talented cast with their considerable comedic acting skills effectively, keeping the show and its’ droll, sometimes ditsy humour afloat.
The fact that the music portion of this musical is meant to be generic is highlighted by the names of its’ settings: ‘Moose Village,’ ‘Mud Castle’, ‘Plague Village,’ ‘The French Castle,’ as if giving a nod and wink to the dozens of films depicting such things as well. Here ‘Camelot’ becomes a glitzy Sodom and Gomorrah, with crests resembling poker chips and OTT dancing girls to lead pure (or is that poor?) knights astray.
Phil Jupitus makes a good King Arthur, nonchalant, pompous, but much more low-key than we’re used to seeing him. But hey, he’s Royal, so I guess it’s not proper to winge. Jodie Prenger has a very powerful voice, and it fairly cracks through the rafters on her belters, as she manages to smile and sing at the same time in her co-starring role as a very laughable Lady in the Lake. Prenger’s reputation as a first lady of musical comedy is well deserved. Todd Carty, previously known as “Mark’ on Eastenders very nearly steals the show in his co-starring role as Arthur’s taken for granted, lowly sidekick, Patsy. His asides are reminiscent of many a Python ‘lower class’ character, who actually has more common sense than his ‘betters.’ Carty has a clear, cheeky singing voice and a better than average sense of comedic timing. Other members of the cast handle their many roles very well and though I heard one man complaining at the interval that in the West End production, there was a stage full of dancing girls, whereas here, there were only two, all those handling single or multiple roles here make a great job of it, including the dancers who dance for England as well as for Arthur and the Round Table as though there were twenty of them instead of two. Standout numbers include ‘He Is Not Dead Yet’, ‘Knights of the Round Table’ (best sung with chest out and upper lip stiffened), ‘Find Your Grail,’ which is apparently akin to the idea of finding one’s trail, as Jupitus as Arthur advises in his role of know it all, practice none of it potentate.
The set has the colourful, slightly surreal scenery of a children’s book turned into a cartoon which is fitting considering the zany, nonsensical action it is backing. Its’ designer Hugh Durrant also handled the costumes, which are divided according to class: sequins and bright hues for up-market characters, and drab looking semi-rags for down and outs. Choreographer Jenny Arnold has the knights and their master stepping as though they’d escaped from a song and dance review in the local Music Hall, while the female dancers seem to have got their kicks from a Saturday Night Variety Show circa 1975. Though, it’s all strictly played for laughs so the whole framework of the show is, in a sense, a send up. Theatergoers should be happy with this as long as they don’t come to the show expecting a ballad or two to warble in the bath thereafter, though the show’s numbers are all atypical for a musical, at least in their melody lines. In short, this is the perfect show for musical-loathers who also happen to be Monty Python fans!
Python’s Eric Idle, co-deviser of the show makes a projected onscreen appearance as God, though he’s just as confused about things as the average bear, so guidance is out of the equation. Idle is no doubt responsible, at least in part, for some of the humour surrounding the silly Frenchmen barring their castle from the filthy English, and oh so typically upper crust attitude of the King and, his Knights once their promotions from commoners to Sirs have inflated their egos. Speaking of silly, a brief spot of Silly Walking set the crowd roaring, as did a giant can of Spam being trotted across the stage by a monk. Sight gags, with a definite source and intention. Not to mention plague victims doing a song and dance.
It’s definitely safe to say that there is nothing the least bit profound about Spamalot, in which, at one point, a pram pushing nun gets down and dirty (dancing that is) with a monk. And, as it’s only meant to be entertainment, I’d say it achieves its purpose very well. As if to avoid any confusion about what to whistle on your way out, a huge sheet drops out of the sky at the conclusion of the show with the words to ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ on it so you can sing along with the cast. All together now…
Photo by Eric Richmond
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