Book, lyrics and music: Eric Idle
Composer: John du Prez
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Reviewer: Lucy Thackray
Spamalot, the ‘lovingly ripped off’ version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (that’s the programme, not me) is a very clever money-spinning exercise – with one sixth of the Python team, Eric Idle, taking all their much-loved silliness, catchphrases and iconic scenes and plonking them onstage with a perky musical theatre score. Recognisable moments such as the French castle guards (‘Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!’), the ballad of brave Sir Robin and (of course) Always Look on the Bright Side of Life raise guffaws from an audience who have laughed at the same gags innumerable times, but the extra songs add little to the original genius of the writing and at times, you long for the delivery of John Cleese, Terry Jones and Idle himself (who does make a projected appearance as God).
The score is at its strongest when mocking the medium of musical theatre rather than actually telling the story, when the numbers become oddly jazz-handsy and pointless, as in the title track and Find Your Grail. The Lloyd-Webber parody The Song That Goes Like This is a highlight, introducing the fantastic Anna-Jane Casey as the Lady of the Lake and Jon Robyns as a dashing Sir Galahad. Casey is the one pure strength of this show, dazzling with comedic timing and powerhouse vocals throughout (while many of her cohorts only display panto-level performance, notably Todd Carty as Patsy who can’t even wring some character out of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life). Her Diva’s Lament in Act Two is effortlessly delivered. DCI Banks’ Stephen Tompkinson is a strong and upright Arthur, though he does rather slip into corpsing and gags during the second act. His band of knights (Graham MacDuff, Robin Armstrong, Rob Delaney and Adam Ellis) keep up the pace and energy, though not given much to work with individually. Delaney’s number about not being able to put on a show without a star is witty and relevant (and explains the presence of Carty).
However, like Shrek the Musical, something is just missing. Both have been taken from hugely successful and well-loved material, and transferred almost word-for-word onto a West End stage, but both left me slightly cold. Spamalot does the ad-libbing and zeitgeisty jokes slightly better, but the musical aspect and fluidity of the plot seem unfinished, the quality just a notch above panto – unforgivable for a (recently tweaked) show that has been running in various cities since 2004. A number where one character comes out falls rather flat, as does the Vegas-style Camelot scene, and the mimed horseriding gets old pretty quickly. The good points: its Britishness; it is hard to believe Spamalot started life in Chicago and then on Broadway and none of the Pythons’ original Brit quirks – men as unconvincing women, silly words and eccentric characters (the Black Knight is still excellent) – are softened or given the Hollywood treatment. Also, the Lady of the Lake lifts it out of straightforward ‘boys being silly’ territory and the hints at pop culture from Jedward to ‘plebgate’ are well incorporated, plus the running time is a neat two hours. Spamalot doesn’t improve on or modernise the Pythons’ original work, but it does showcase how their inimitable brand of surreal, silly comedy can still draw bellyaching laughs from an audience of hundreds.
Image: Anna Jane Casey and Stephen Tompkinson star in Spamalot at The Playhouse Theatre, London (www.matrixpictures.co.uk)