NOTE: There have been cast changes since this review
Spam featured in my upbringing almost as much as it dominates my life today. The main difference is that in the heady days of my youth it was the edible variety, while now it is the kind that pours into my inbox unendingly, offering Viagra and other prowess-enhancing medications, and the chance to be rich beyond my wildest imaginings if only I hand over my back account details to some dubious government official in deepest Africa.
It's not hard to imagine then how writer and ex-Python, Eric Idle, might have come up with the idea for 'Spamalot'. Because for Idle too, Spam has come full circle. Not only did it figure prominently in the hugely popular TV series 'Monty Python's Flying Circus', the new association with the name has given Idle the chance to bring in a younger crowd to his new show, unashamedly but 'lovingly ripped off' from the 1975 film 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliham.
'Spamalot' has already enjoyed a mind-bogglingly successful run on Broadway, and now begins what looks like being an equally successful, money-spinning run in London. And, if you're passing by Las Vegas from March next year, you'll also be able to catch it there too if you're truly a Python addict.
One of the hallmarks of the Python brand of humour was to give history a comic twist. The ingredients included giving historical characters ordinary-sounding names like 'Dennis', and characterising peasants, for example, with knowledge and a way with language more appropriate to a university don. Nothing has changed in that department as one of the first scenes shows when humble guards at a castle start debating the migratory habits of various species of swallows, and whether they could carry a coconut to the temperate climes of England.
'Spamalot' is based on the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of The Round Table. We first meet King Arthur on a recruitment drive. As in the film, Arthur's horse is invisible but his faithful servant, Patsy, provides the sound effects of hooves via two halves of a coconut. A history teacher provides the narration to most of the piece, which takes a rather sudden turn of direction, shortly after the start, via Finland and a 'fish-slapping' song. But we're soon back in Blighty with the ravages of the plague in full-swing, though leaving at least one of its victims 'not yet dead'.
God, symbolised by a gargantuan pair of feet and voiced by original Python, John Cleese, instructs Arthur to seek out the Holy Grail. What follows is a jaunt that sees Arthur and his knights in a variety of ludicrously silly settings, and tackling a number of challenges such as finding a shrubbery in order to avoid the wrath of the 'Knights who say Ni'. And there are also appearances from head-bashing monks, an unassumingly ferocious white rabbit, and the Black Knight who ends up impaled on a doorway still eager to do battle with Arthur in spite of having had both his arms cut off.
There's more to 'Spamalot' though than merely recreating some of the best scenes from the 'Holy Grail'. In Idle's comic hands, 'Spamalot' is a vehicle to attack (in the nicest possible way) the musical genre in general, and those that take themselves far too seriously, in particular. So, we're treated to a number entitled 'The Song That Goes Like This' which is a carefully-worked dig at those tedious songs we've all heard (and groaned over) in hundreds of musicals. But since the set is virtually identical to one from 'Phantom of the Opera' - complete with gondola-like boat shrouded in mist - there's little doubt as to the focal point of the humour of this sketch.
The first half of 'Spamalot' is mostly funny and often hilarious. The scene with the French Taunters is Idle at his very best, with the French guard of a castle lashing Arthur and his Knights with seemingly endless verbal abuse – e.g. 'You donkey bottom biters' etc. The pace of the first half is also fast-moving so that, if you don't like one of the scenes, you won't have to wait long for something different. The sets and staging are impressively flawless and inventive, and there's astute and meticulous direction by veteran film and stage director, Mike Nichols.
The second half is a little disappointing. It's not nearly as strong or as funny as the first, and none of it had the real spark of genius we'd expected from it when the curtain fell for the interval. The scene where Prince Herbert is 'rescued' by Lancelot was overly long and just didn't have enough humour to sustain it. And the eventual discovery of the grail really lacked the kind of inventiveness we once thought the hallmark of Python humour, though maybe this bit of audience participation was also poking fun at itself as well as the genre.
Tim Curry takes the lead as King Arthur and contrives a stoical, almost head-masterly, monarch in the face of irritations from his knights as well as his adversaries, and there's excellent support, most notably from David Burrell as Arthur's sidekick, Patsy, and Tom Goodman-Hill as The French Taunter and Sir Lancelot. But best in this show has to be Hannah Waddingham who displays a stunning range of vocal styles, great comedy timing and highly impressive stage prescience as the Lady of The Lake.
Judging by the enthusiasm of the audience, 'Spamalot' will be raking in the cash at the box office for some aeons to come. When it came to the rendition of Idle's immensely famous and catchy song 'Always Look on The Bright Side of Life' (originally written for another great Python film, 'Life of Brian') most of the audience readily joined in, managing even the whistling to great effect. In a very real sense, the success of the show owes almost as much to the exuberance of the audience as it does to the abilities of the cast, or indeed, the script.
Though the staging is brilliant, and the direction and acting almost flawless, the overall impression is that something is missing. Though it has glimmers of brilliance and comic genius, it's by no means consistently funny. But Idle has successfully caught a mood – no mean feat in itself - and he's managed to stamp his own authority and identity on the piece, while remaining faithful to the Python 'brand'.
What the critics had to say.....
PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Deliriously silly and loopily enjoyable evening." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Mike Nichols directs an exuberantly inventive production in which the jokes, both visual and verbal, just keep on coming, creating a conspiracy of pleasure that often feels like the best pantomime you’ve ever seen...It’s a wonderful night" NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "How sweet it also is to hear songs with silly lyrics that send up the style of instant moral uplift and dewyeyed yearning that characterise numbers from Rogers and Hammerstein to Andrew Lloyd Webber....Even describing the show as spoof, send-up, pantomime, musical comedy, satire and surreal farce does not altogether convey its weird, anarchic flavour. " MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "In short, the show has its moments; and Tim Hatley's sets and costumes carefully preserve the air of a low-tech medieval pantomime...There simply comes a point when I, for one, weary of old jokes and tongue-in-cheek send-ups of Arthurian ideals and musical cliches. Irony has its place but it's not quite enough to sustain a whole evening. With hand on heart, I'd much rather watch Lerner and Loewe's Camelot than Eric Idle's smart-arsed Spamalot." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Cheerfully mischievous...Silly? Very. Funny? You bet."