Book: Eric Idle
Music: John du Prez and Eric Idle
Director: Daniel Buckroyd
Reviewer: Tom Ralph
Spamalot is a clever musical. The programme and posters proclaim that it is ‘lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and The Holy Grail’ but that is only telling half the story. Eric Idle’s book and lyrics satirise musical theatre traditions, creating a piece that appeals to modern theatre audiences with only a passing knowledge of, or interest in, Monty Python, as well as to fans of the original movie who might normally steer clear of musicals.
The essential scenes and dialogue from the film are all present and correct, providing the signposts for the action and greeted like old friends by the audience. They frame the show, from the coconuts knocked together to create the sound of a horse, through the debates about whether a woman in a lake giving a man a sword is really a legitimate basis for him to declare himself a king, and onto the Knights who say Ni, Killer Rabbits and princes trapped in towers waiting for a Knight to rescue them. The ensemble cast delivers each of these scenes with precision timing, knowing that they are absurd and that no deviation from the original is needed.
Bob Harms plays King Arthur with the lack of self-awareness needed to make him seem a brave but ultimately silly figure. As his sidekick Patsy, Rhys Owen is the perfect counterfoil, faithfully and unquestioningly supporting his master, while Jonathan Tweedie as Sir Lancelot and Stephen Arden as Sir Robin, could be John Cleese and Michael Palin as they use their performances as their inspiration.
The faithfulness to the spirit of the film could be a reason to make the production unnecessary if that was all it had to offer. However, the material Idle added for the musical, as well as the topical references introduced by the company themselves, make these set-piece scenes a starting point for the show, rather than the only attraction on offer. Often they lead into songs from the film – such as Knights of the Round Table and Brave Sir Robin, as well as the almost obligatory incorporation of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life from Life of Brian – or songs that are clearly linked to the action, but at other times they pastiche the musical genre, and this is where the production becomes more than the musical of the film.
The Song That Goes Like This is a clever exposition of the overlong dramatic ballads that accompany the beginning of romances. You Won’t Succeed in Showbiz is an accurate, comic, depiction of the belief that celebrity names, rather than quality productions, are what is needed to create a hit show, and Whatever Happened To My Part, both overcomes the problem of the Lady of the Lake having a limited role in the second act as well as allowing for vocal operatics, diva-ish demands and comic delivery from Sarah Harlington as she sings it.
It’s funny and clever throughout, and 12 years on from its original performances, Spamalot continues to work both as a musical re-imagining of the film, and as a musical in its own right. It’s a worthy addition to the Python legacy and this production of it recognises and plays to its strengths.
Runs until 30 September 2017 then touring | Image: Robert Day