Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Review: Monty Python's Spamalot at the Playhouse Theatre

Finally, we have an answer to the question “What would Monty Python be like if it was performed by CBBC's Dick and Dom?”. I have personally never asked that question and I am not sure if anyone else on this planet did but I experienced the answer a few weeks ago when my friend invited me to see Monty Python's Spamalot.
Yes, This happened!
I am aware that I am not expressing an original sentiment when I say that Monty Python in general and the Holy Grail in particular have played a central role in my development as a human being. I remember my first encounter with Python. I am not sure how old I was but it was a new years eve, and after watching the fireworks on TV I continued watching as a film about the Holy Grail started. I don't recall the extended credits sequence (maybe because the jokes went over my head) but I do remember being engrossed by the misty hillside and the ominous sound of a rider approaching only to collapse with laughter once I experienced the now legendary coconut gag. Mercifully, my parents allowed me to stay up and watch the entire thing and from then on I joined the rather large python loving fraternity. Flash forward about 20 years later and I am sitting in a theatre, the same gag is being recreated on stage and I seem to be the only person in a 700 seater auditorium not laughing.

Is it me? Have I become one of those clinically out of touch adults who, in the 1970s, dismissed Monty Python's work? If I were to be shown the Holy Grail for the first time today would I not find it funny? Or did Spamalot do something very wrong?

Dick and Dom in da Spamalot can be divided into two parts, the Python bits and the original bits.

The Python Bits
It's easy to say that you can't go wrong when the source material is Monty Python. You are performing scenes written by some of the greatest comedy writers in the history of any medium. However, these same writers are also among the greatest comedy performers to have ever appeared on screen and to recreate this on the stage, with Dick and Dom, is a huge challenge. Perhaps it was an impossible technical task in the first place. I don't see how you could to effectively recreate Lancelot's berserka attack on the castle for example and Arthur's dismemberment of the Black Knight would just doesn’t work on stage (this though, I guess, raises the question, why bother trying in the first place). Despite the technical difficulties in attempting to transfer from film to the stage I feel that the the failure to recreate that Python, um (help me here Concord), je ne sais quoi lies largely with the performances. From the debates over the coconut carrying capacity of sparrows to the viscously taunting Frenchman, every time Spamalot attempts to recreate, often verbatim, a scene from the film there seemed to be something missing. It was almost as if it were being performed by people who didn't quite understand what was funny about the original film and had therefore decided to try improve on it by, for example, massively extending the Frenchman’s raspberry blowing scene. The strange thing is I did chuckle to myself a couple of times through the performance but this was often due to reliving my favourite parts of the original film.

The Original Bits
Given that Eric Idle was involved in creating the show you may expect to see some of that Python genius in the parts of the plot, the jokes and the musical numbers not found in the original. However, it's largely absent. This is not necessarily a negative. In fact the few genuinely funny parts of the show tended to come from the a very unpython place. Although I found most of the songs contrived and unfunny, some songs worked well. I enjoyed “Whatever Happened to My Part” and “I'm All Alone” was both funny actually very well performed D&D. However, a couple of funny songs and the occasional funny line are not enough to save the production. I did have visions of the writer rooms as they struggled to find section of the film they could turn into an original song number: “The bit with the guy whose not quite dead, can we get anything out of that?” From the hackneyed introduction of each of the Knights of the Round table or the love story with Arthur and the Lady of the Lake, Spamalot fails when it attempts to move away from the original work almost as much as it does when it tries to recreated the film word for word. I guess if there is one thing worse than trying and failing to recreate Monty Python for the stage it is trying and failing to improve it.

Some Final Thoughts
Despite my own misgivings it must be noted that everyone else in the audience, with the exception my friend and I, seemed to thoroughly enjoy this production. There are a few 4 star reviews and Tim Walker in the telegraph gave it 5 stars (perhaps undermined by the fact that he plays a role in the production). It's clear I am in the minority and I have been, in general, rather dismissive of what appears to a modern obsession with converting popular franchises to musical theatre, so perhaps I approached Spamalot with something of a closed mind. However, I also went in with reports of how brilliant the show was so I did genuinely try to give it a chance. Perhaps the previous incarnations starring Tim Curry or Marcus Bridgstocke justify these high marks but I cannot see how a cast change would completely cover over the cracks.. In the end, however, Spamalot failed where it drew from the source material and failed when it tried to do something original.
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