Her Majesty’s Theatre
Spamalot was written by Eric Idle and is as good as everything else he wrote for Python. It’s “lovingly ripped off” from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Idle has left in the best bits, removed the bits that would be boring on stage and got rid of the bits that made us cringe (sorry lads – there’s no spanking – but there is a reference). He’s melded characters to create much more of a journey and story for the knights. For example after Dennis is found by Arthur in the mud, he is convinced to join the quest. “Kneel Galahad” “It’s Dennis”. Idle satirises and references all of Monty Python from Finland to suspenders and a bra, and Patsy gets to sing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” - without having to be crucified.
If you love Python, you’ll get every joke. But don’t worry if you don’t. The reason Monty Python and the Holy Grail has become one of the most quoted films, is because it’s one of the most original and inspired comedies ever written. “I’m not dead yet” is now a song, but remains one of the best jokes ever written. The French taunting is even funny when performed by drunk engineer undergraduates in the uni bar; so its side splitting when performed by professionals. Jokes like the cute little rabbit and the cow are still absurdly ridiculous, even if their success is based on knowledge of the film.
The stroke of genius was letting Mike Nichols direct. He certainly knows how to direct film and television (The Graduate, The Birdcage, Working Girl, Regarding Henry, Angels in America to name a few). Nichols gift as a director is to totally emerge the viewer into the world and lives of his characters. He takes the very, very funny Idle script and fleshes out the knights, so we come to love them as more than just “the bloke playing Michael Palin”. I suspect it’s Nichols who also brought in the abundance of musical theatre references. In his hands Spamalot has become a lampoon of all musicals - not just a hilarious musical.
Most of the new jokes are based on musicals. Phantom, West Side Story, Fiddler, Funny Girl, Rocky Horror, Boy From Oz, Les Mis (Eponine appears as a French person) are all there. And there’s more than one Aussie reference for our version. “You Won’t Succeed” is written just for Broadway. It’s about not being able to put on a musical without Jews. This kills every performance in Manhattan, but the Australian audience were not as comfortable laughing at the Jew jokes as they were at the French.
The Australian cast are all pretty close to perfect. Lucinda Shaw is the stand out as The Lady of the Lake. It’s a tough role. It was written to include a female in the all male story and much of the musical theatre satire rests with her. Lucinda excels. Her comic timing is only matched by her voice. Mark Conaghan (Prince Herbert), Jason Langley (brave Sir Robin), Ben Lewis (Dennis Galahad) and Derek Metzger (Patsy) are all memorable and have taken the roles beyond the film characters. Stephen Hall is wonderful as Lancelot, but has to stop pretending to be John Cleese. Billie Brown leads the knights as Arthur. Billie doesn’t match the vocal ability of the rest of the cast, which is especially noticeable in the duets, and he hasn’t completely embraced the character yet. Arthur is the serious one. Billie plays it like he’s the one in on the whole joke. We need to laugh more AT Arthur, rather than with him.
Spamalot already has repeat visitors and groupies at the theatre each night. (Idle spotting was very popular this week.) It’s going to settle for a long sold out run. There’s at least one seat that is sold out every performance until February. You’ll have to ask someone who has seen the show, as I don’t dare say anything more in print.
This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.