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Spamalot is a musical comedy play closely based on Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail. Whilst I'm not keen on musicals as such, I thought this one might be a little different, so headed off to Newcastle Theatre Royal to find out.
I was really interested to see whether the inspired, but insane humour of the Python team could possibly be successfully translated into a musical comedy. I'm happy to report it can. Spamalot does a great balancing act between reproducing the film's best bits (The Knights who say Ni, the French taunting, the vicious white rabbit) whilst adding new stuff to help keep it feeling fresh.
There was also the danger that any spin-off would be a pale imitation of the original. Again, this is not the case. Whilst there are some scenes that aren't as good (the swallow/coconut discussion didn't quite have the same spark), many of them (Tim the Sorcerer) are equally good, whilst a few (Swamp Castle) are arguably better. Python fans will be extremely happy with the way the film has been translated to the stage.
Non-Python fans will find themselves enjoying it just as much. There are a couple of in-jokes which might pass such people by (the relevance of the opening "fish-slapping dance" scene will be a mystery), but on the whole, this is deeply entertaining whether you've seen the film or not.
Most importantly Spamalot is laugh-out-loud funny. From the over-the-top ludicrous opening, through to the sing-along finish, it perfectly captures the stupid humour of the Python team, whilst updating it for both modern times and the theatre. I can honestly say there was not a single scene that did not make me laugh. Of course, some scenes are funnier than others, but on the whole, the hit-miss ratio of the jokes was very high.
The musical aspect also works surprisingly well. These tread a fine line between damn good tunes and musical parodies and the balance is absolutely right. Too many straightforward parodies would have become tiresome, whilst more traditional songs would have meant Spamalot didn't distinguish itself sufficiently from the very genre it was spoofing. Happily, Spamalot offers funny lyrics combined with great tunes covering a variety of styles from power ballads to Noel Coward. You'll be hooked on it all, tapping your foot along to the tunes whilst laughing out loud at the lyrics.
Amongst the cast, the big disappointment was Marcus Brigstocke as King Arthur. He looked slightly out of his depth, uncomfortable with the song and dance aspects, and Ill at ease with the acting side. Indeed, there were a couple of occasions when he seemed totally detached from what was happening around him... but perhaps I'm being unfair and it was just a bad day at the office.
Todd Carty was fun in the slightly limited role of Patsy, Arthur's squire. Carty is not exactly the most obvious choice for a musical. When dancing he has the grace and style of an elephant on roller skates and a singing voice which is best left in the shower. He also relies rather too heavily on gurning and over-acting to convey emotion. Yet he threw himself into his role with such enthusiasm that it was impossible not to like him and somehow, against all the odds, it worked very well.
The show was actually stolen by two of the "support cast". Graham MacDuff was fabulous as Sir Lancelot (and other roles) proving a fine actor with an excellent sense of comic timing. On the female side of things, the "watery tart" the Lady of the Lake was brilliantly portrayed by Hayley Tamaddon. Easily the most talented singer amongst the cast, she belts out some cracking songs, but also proves more than adept at the acting bits too. Her perky diva-like performance could have been annoying, and yet she proves to be the show's real star. She may be the one token female member of the cast (bar a couple of dancers), but she shows them how it's done and whenever she is off-stage (as she is for all too much of the second half), you find yourself longing for her return.
Despite these stand-out turns Spamalot works best because it's an ensemble piece in which every single cast member gets their funny scene or big song. The cast on stage are clearly having great fun, and that rubs off onto the audience, who can't but help be entertained.
Of course, as with any theatre trip, tickets are not particularly cheap: ranging from £25-50, depending on where you sit - although obviously, this will vary from venue to venue. We had tickets for the Grand Circle which gave us a cracking view, as we were up above the stage and could see everything that was happening, whether at the front, back or side of the stage. There was only one point (right towards the end) when our view was blocked (when the action moves to the main auditorium), but this lasted less than 30 seconds, so wasn't really an issue.
Pound for pound, you could argue that Spamalot does not offer great value for money, as it only lasts around 90 minutes (excluding the interval). Laugh for laugh and song-for-song, though it's worth every penny.
By the time you read this, Spamalot will have moved on from Newcastle, but the tour is still on-going until the end of 2010, with a couple of dates into 2011. Have a look at the website listed at the bottom of this review and, if it's coming anywhere near you, get booking some tickets now!
Spamalot is that rarest of things: a musical comedy that satisfies on both levels. The songs in it are "proper" songs with great words and tunes, whilst the comedy is equally strong and there is not a single scene goes by without you laughing.
The Python team may all have moved onto different things, but their legacy (unlike the Norwegian Blue) is still very much alive.
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