Bristol Hippodrome, to Saturday, April 28
How many times can you laugh at the same joke before it stops being funny? Or can that same joke become funny again if it’s told once more, years later – and as part of a shared theatrical experience?
Those are the big questions that have to be asked of any production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot” written by Eric Idle and John Du Prez. It’s the musical that’s been (lovingly) ripped off from the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”– and the answer to the second question is pretty much a resounding “Yes”.
People of a certain generation (OK then, mine) have been endlessly repeating Python absurdities to anyone who’ll listen since Monday, October 6, 1969 – the day after their first show was broadcast on the BBC. If anyone had suggested then that a professional cast in a full blown theatrical show would be getting laughs with the same sort of jokes 43 years later, we’d probably have laughed even louder.
But Spamalot works tremendously well as a theatrical experience. Its many years onstage mean it’s now incredibly slick, scene transitions are seamless, the song and dance routines precise and well-rehearsed, the dialogue pared to the bone, big laughs come every couple of seconds, and the Python voice of irreverent silliness still comes through – even if some of the edgier moments have been rounded off.
The original show featured some very funny – if highly offensive – lyrics like “We won’t succeed on Broadway if we don’t have any Jews”. But they’ve now been replaced by the far more family friendly “You won’t succeed in showbiz if you haven’t got a star”, which instead allows for some deliciously topical digs at TV reality shows, Susan Boyle and Simon Cowell.
Marcus Brigstocke plays King Arthur – central to the story, of course, but lumbered with delivering a lot of exposition. When he’s given the chance to ad lib he grabs it with both hands, just as you’d expect an experienced stand-up to do – but that opportunity doesn’t come very often.
Todd Carty (once Mark Fowler in EastEnders) makes the part of Patsy (Arthur’s hunchback page with the coconut shells) absolutely his own, with a hangdog expression that barely disguises his contempt for his master.
But you can’t take your eyes off Bonnie Langford as the hilarious Lady of theLake. This is probably the perfect part for Bonnie, the showbiz trooper. She does her best to steal every scene with a totally (and deliberately) over the top diva-style performance. The joke is that her character believes she deserves a bigger share of the lime light and it is through her and her songs that we see how Spamalot really is much cleverer than simply a Pythons rip off.
This is a successful musical about how to stage a successful musical. King Arthur tells us just before the interval that this is the audience’s chance to get a drink and go for a pee and that the actors will soon be back with Act Three. But it’s Bonnie Langford’s songs that make the funniest and sharpest points about what theatrical conventions make big musicals work.
In “The Song That Goes Like This” she tells us “Once in every show/There comes a song like this/It starts off soft and low /And ends up with a kiss” which it does. Bonnie gives it her all, and does her best to blow everyone else off-stage, but later in “The Diva’s Lament” her character criticises the show’s structure (from her own, selfish point of view, naturally) by singing, “Whatever happened to my part?/It was exciting at the start/Now we’re halfway through Act 2/And I’ve had nothing yet to do.”
So now the writers are involving us in the joke. These are knowing references to how we’re being manipulated by the show and that allows the audience to enjoy it just like children enjoy a pantomime – only instead of shouting, “He’s behind you!” we adults join in with lines like “….and your father smells of elderberries” and “We are the knights who say Ni”.
Joining in is very much a shared experience, we all love to be in a big crowd that’s sharing our enjoyment. It’s like belonging to a club where everyone knows the rules, and the more familiar the jokes are, the better we can join in.
Whenever the big comic lines were approaching on this opening night a noticeable ripple of expectation ran through the crowd, and such a big chunk of them shouted out “Ni” at the right moment that the actor delivering the line could ad-lib. “You see we’re everywhere!”
Probably the best example of a show that has achieved this sort of adult pantomime status is The Rocky Horror Show, where the audience dresses up, mimics the on-stage action and knows the script so well that they join in scripted “call back” heckles that, by now, traditionally interrupt the actors.
Spamalot isn’t quite at that level yet, but it’s not far off and if it does finally make it then this is a show that could go on successfully telling us the same old jokes for a very long time to come.