Clip-clop. Clip-clop. Neighhhh. The Knights of the Round Table are riding into the Devonshire Park Theatre this week, but not as you know them. It must be Spamalot.
Now then, we go back a long way, Python and I. Huddled round a black-and-white TV in a student flat in about 1970, I still remember that initial astonishment at the dazzlingly clever language, at sketches with no punchline, at the simply anarchic shattering of all the tired old rules of comedy. For almost half a century, Monty Python has influenced and inspired writers and shows from Blackadder to Horrible Histories to the Plays That Go Wrong.
But the original is still the best, and this Spamalot from Selladoor Productions – with some subtle rescoring and rescripting to stay up to date – still has essential Python humour at its heart. Yes, it is sometimes clichéd and always silly, but I still defy you not to laugh.
Most of the audience will have known what to expect, but it doesn’t take long. Settle back, folks, as the MD takes his place, the flautist tunes up, and the footlights radiate on a splendid portcullis front-cloth. Just ignore those unnerving backstage animal noises: they are quickly supplanted by the Fisch Schlapping Dance, the horseless knights and the coconut shells, and off we all ride.
The pastiche is priceless, and merciless. You could, if you choose, spend the whole evening spotting the nods to ancient Python scripts – “the plumage don’t enter into it” – or the snatches from other shows – I think I caught four bars of West Side Story in Act Two, as well as references to Fiddler, Miss Saigon, Les Mis, and a (male) dancer frozen in an iconic Sally Bowles pose. No target in musical theatre is off limits, and Spamalot’s finest number, The Song That Goes Like This, is both a swipe at Lloyd Webber and a back-handed tribute.
Wisely, director Daniel Buckroyd does not stray far from the movie, and addicts will be reassured to find the Killer Bunny, the Knights who say Ni! and most of the other essential silly bits. There is even time for a tap number, albeit in chain-mail and on giant tins of Spam – and indeed Ashley Nottingham’s whole choreography is cracking. A four-piece band breezes along cheerfully.
The story – based on the Quest for the Holy Grail – lurches rather than unfolds, and all but loses its way once or twice on the journey, but nobody minds. There are glorious Picaresque adventures to enjoy along the way, and the political satire is only thinly disguised as gormless xenophobic Knights encounter les chevaliers francais d’Europe Uni...
In a triumphant finale, the magnificent Grail itself (or rather, the garishly bejewelled version knocked up by the props department) is discovered, but I dare not tell you where, or the company will send the boys round.
“Over-act like hell!” It may not be what they were taught in drama school, but these cast members all rise gleefully to the challenge. In such a strongly ensemble show, it is really hard to spotlight individual performances. Bob Harms is a perennially hapless King Arthur, with Rhys Owen the perfect foil as his sidekick Patsy, a Baldrick with brains. Oh, and while we are celebrating ensembles, let’s hear it for the two swings, Joel Benedict and Ryan Limb, both of whom swung seamlessly and expertly into roles for Tuesday night’s opener.
And Sarah Harlington is a stunning Lady of the Lake, a heroine almost too authentic for a show that sends up everything. Last seen in Eastbourne as an irrestistible Kate Monster in Avenue Q, Sarah’s thrilling vocals fill the auditorium, and her Diva’s Lament is definitive. At this rate, the very biggest musical theatre lead roles will be on Sarah’s CV very soon.
Makes Ben Hur look like an epic? Makes Lloyd Webber sound like a composer. Go on, take off your sensible hat, switch your brain to silly mode, and you’ll absolutely love it. By Kevin Anderson.