‘Spamalot’ review

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Spamalot – “the hit musical lovingly ripped-off from Monty Python and the Holy Grail” – has a new home. After running at various locations for years now, it finds itself at a new permanent home in London’s Harold Pinter Theatre – and with an all new cast!

If you’ve seen the film, then you’ll know the plot: King Arthur gathers an eccentric group of knights around him in order to set out on a quest to find the Holy Grail, encountering troublesome Frenchmen, stubborn knights and murderous woodland creatures along the way. Being a musical, however, the story is littered with hilarious song and dance routines – the most successful of which are the ones that poke fun at the art of musicals themselves.

Taking the lead of King Arthur for this new and scaled down run is comedian Marcus Brigstocke (sharing the role with impressionist Jon Culshaw later this month). Brigstocke is a good fit as the closest thing the show has to a straight-man, even as he looks somewhat more comfortable during the speaking sections than he does during the musical numbers, which leave him a little nervously (but amusingly!) stiff and awkward. But then, perhaps that’s the point?

Other recognisable faces in the cast include Todd Carty – Mark Fowler off EastEnders! – as Patsy, Arthur’s loyal “work-horse”. Carty mugs gamefully throughout what is, for long stretches, quite a thankless role, but rings the laughs when given the opportunity.

The real star turn, however, comes from former Doctor Who companion Bonnie Langford as the Lady in the Lake. Langford’s Lady is a complete diva, convinced that she’s the star of the show rather than just a bit-part at the start. Langford is given most of the heavy lifting to do in terms of singing, and one memorable song – The Diva’s Lament – sees her hilariously bemoaning her absence from the plot during Act II.

But, of course, this is a comedy show, so the real question has to be – is it funny? A lot of the answer depends on your familiarity with the film.

Spamalot runs us through most of the famous sequences from the movie, almost verbatim. The Black Knight, the Knights Who Say “Ni”, the unhelpful French-men… all are present and correct, and performed with gusto by the cast, but – while a joy to watch – they often provide more a sense of warm nostalgia than actual belly-laughs. But then, if you haven’t seen the film, some of the joy of watching these skits performed on stage might be lost on you.

For example, hearing The Black Knight’s oblivious claim that “It’s only a scratch” might not have old hands rolling in the aisles, but seeing the ramshackle nature of how they depict his increasing dismemberment on stage is a joy when you know how it goes in the movie.

The real humour comes in-between these nostalgia-fests, as the show takes aim at popular culture and throws well aimed barbs at Boris Johnson, Seb Coe and the Olympics, and U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney – the show is extremely up-to-date in this regard.

Numbers like ‘The Song That Goes Like This’ make for very funny meta comments on the whole Spamalot endeavour. The show also mines a rich vein of humour in mocking the scaled down production values of the show (the Harold Pinter Theatre is smaller than its previous homes); in the official program, one of the scenes is titled ‘Yet Another Part of the Very Extensive Forest’.

While it’s sometimes tricky to keep track of which cast member is portraying which knight (not that it particularly matters), they’re all excellent, and have a whale of a time in the more showy roles. The over-blown French accents are hilarious, while one member perfectly delivering an extended tongue twister causes Brigstocke to break momentarily – “On press-night. Brilliant”, he exclaims wearily through the giggles – as Arthur has to repeat it.

Spamalot is a thoroughly endearing production, one with something to offer both those familiar with the source material, and newcomers to the Python universe. By the very fact of this being Python, the rapid-fire nature of the jokes means that if one falls flat (and certainly, some do – an extended musical number about Sir Lancelot’s sexuality perhaps belongs back in the ‘70s), you can be sure there’ll be another along in a second that will hit the mark. That’s just Python. There are some genuinely hilarious moments, some ludicrous silliness, and more than a few surprises (the eventual location of the Grail, for one).

Spamalot might not have enough to convince the musical purists that it’s truly worthy of the art-form, instead preferring to simply provide a good time (the bar even sells a specially concocted ‘Grail Ale’ – and quite delicious it is too!), with the game performances (Langford, in particular) and the inspired silliness of Spamalot ensuring that you’ll definitely leave with a smile on your face.

Performing at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London from Wednesday 25th July to Sunday 9th September 2012.

> Buy Monty Python and the Holy Grail on DVD on Amazon.