I’ve loved Monty Python for as long as I can remember. It’s exactly my sort of humour: ridiculous, silly, absurd, yet witty and imaginative. I had high expectations when I went to see Spamalot, a musical largely based on the Holy Grail.
Fortunately, it did not disappoint. As a long-time Python fan, I found myself singing along to classics like, ‘I Am Not Dead Yet’, and in particular, ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.’ The memorable Holy Grail scenes like the encounter with the French, or the deluded black knight, were brought to the stage with all the qualities of the film, and sometimes more. Equally, the actors played their roles true to the original characters. Marc Akinfolarin’s portrayal of the delightful Prince Herbert was particularly well-delivered. The chemistry – or sometimes lack thereof – between King Arthur (Bob Harms) and Patsy (Rhys Owen) was wonderfully performed.
However, a prior knowledge of Monty Python was hardly a pre-requisite for enjoying the show. Partly because some of the characters featured here weren’t in the Holy Grail. Deviating from original material is always a risk in theatre, yet I’m glad Spamalot chose to add some magic of its own. The highlight of this was the Lady of the Lake (Sarah Harlington), who played a feisty and determined enchantress, even having her own song about how awful it was that she wasn’t in the story more! This breaking of the fourth wall was to superb effect – the Lady of the Lake won the audience’s heart. I certainly welcomed a strong female role in what could have been a drearily male-dominated narrative. The Lady of the Lake was accompanied by a Female Ensemble, who sang beautifully and passionately, and the American-style Soul/Blues genre of their songs was an interesting contrast to the Python classics.
Spamalot’s success was also derived from its cross-generational appeal. On the one hand, Monty Python brought to life in the present day is always going to benefit from the nostalgia of the audience’s middle-aged members. But the show felt refreshingly modern. It had not-so-subtle references to current bogeymen, Trump and Putin. When Prince Herbert and Sir Lancelot (Johnathan Tweedie) get married, they say how that would still be controversial in a thousand years’ time. There was even a gag about how the cast were drunk due to 2-for-1 vodka shots at the Imperial. Adjusting the jokes for the current time and place was a stroke of comedic genius.
It’s difficult to analyse other aspects of the production. There were no hidden meanings. There was little to read between the lines. The plot, while timeless, was also a tad clichéd, resolving itself hilariously but abruptly. Equally, the story felt like it was an afterthought to the music, with each scene more a random episode than a logical continuation of the previous scene. If you’re looking for in-depth character development, or any extremely unexpected plot twists, you won’t find them here. At least near the beginning, I did feel a bit lost.
But at the end of the day, critiquing a Monty Python production for a largely threadbare plot is like critiquing a tragedy for not being funny enough – it misses the point. It goes without saying that Monty Python isn’t meant to be taken seriously. Spamalot intended to deliver a barrelful of laughs through the medium of droll songs and outrageous scenarios, and it did so virtually flawlessly. The jokes were timed to perfection. The characters, both new and original, were intriguing and exuberant. The set was ambitious and varied. The use of props couldn’t be better – I fell about laughing when a knight was hit with a stuffed cow thrown by a French guard!
Sadly, I couldn’t help but notice that the audience was almost entirely non-student. I’m writing this only a few hours after seeing it, because I want it to be published quickly in order to encourage more students to give Spamalot a try before its final performance at the Exeter Northcott. It’s unbelievably funny, it appeals to people of all tastes, and it’s the perfect way to spend an evening after a long day of studying. It’s on until Friday, so go see it, because you’re not dead yet…
– Owen Bell
IMAGES SOURCE: https://exeternorthcott.co.uk/calendar/spamalot-2/