This third UK tour of “Spamalot” opened in September 2017 in Blackpool, and reaches Derby as part of its nationwide travels. It is a brand new production of the show by Selladoor. The Monty Python team dominated British television in the 1970’s, the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” was a huge success when it was first screened in 1975, a cinema success which was reprised with “The Life of Brian”. In 2005, “Spamalot”, a stage play based on “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, opened to much acclaim on Broadway, a project masterminded by Eric idle himself, rather than the whole Python team. The television series was always a little hit and miss, a luxury unavailable to a stage show. I was fascinated to see how Idle’s creation would shape up.
I need not have worried. The spirit of Python is ever-present, but the production is a stand- alone piece, no previous experience is required. Director Daniel Buckroyd has not opted for a nostalgia show, instead neatly fusing classic comedy with the demands of a 21st century audience, driving proceedings on at a brisk pace. Sara Perk’s set is quirky, retro, stylised, kitsch and very effective, transforming Derby into Camelot. Ashley Nottingham’s choreography is delivered with brio and enthusiasm. Favourite elements endure, the dancing nuns, the coconut shell created horse, and the dismembered Black Knight amongst them. A contemporaneous script, name checking Piers Morgan and Simon Cowell, is fresh, and funny. The deliberations about the coconut carrying abilities of European and African swallows is laugh out loud stuff.
The songs work. Inevitably, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” receives more than one outing, including a sing-along end of show reprise, but Sarah Harlington’s diva strop in “Whatever Happened to my Part?” stood out for me, comic, accomplished and dramatic. Eric Idle wrote the musical’s book and lyrics and collaborated with John Du Prez on the music, except for “Finland”, which was written by Michael Palin for Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album; “Knights of the Round Table” and “Brave Sir Robin”, which were composed by Neil Innes for Monty Python and the Holy Grail; and “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”, which was originally written by Idle for the film Monty Python’s “ Life of Brian”.
Derby does not often stage professional musicals. It was a pleasure to see the return of an orchestra pit, and four musicians playing live, led by Musical Director Brian McDermott. There is no substitute for the sound and dynamic, of musicians playing live supporting the cast, and the songs fell naturally into the narrative, rather than feeling awkwardly bolted on.
Bob Harms is terrific as King Arthur, his double act with coconut shell wielding faithful servant Patsy, played by Rhys Owen, a delight in a performance which echoed Tony Robinson’s Baldrick in Blackadder. Mathew Pennington squeezes every ounce of camp out of fey Prince Herbert, the damsel in distress. The gay Herbert, and macho Sir Lancelot, stereotypes have the potential to go horribly wrong for a modern audience, tastes and comedy has moved on in the past forty years, but they pull it off, culminating in an hilarious and entertaining song and dance number featuring silver lame hot pants which Kylie would kill to wear.
At the final curtain, the rousing reception from a very well attended first night was richly deserved for a cast who had given it their all. The show did not feel dated at all. Maybe that is because the comedy, although a feature of Python, was not quite as Pythonesque as appeared so at the time, instead it was just classic comedy, which always endures. At inception, some Pythonistas baulked at the idea of an Idle only creation, but it is that singularity of vision which is the show’s strength, there did not need to be an accommodation with the undoubted talents of other Python team members. I am very fond of the adage that a camel is a horse made by committee.
It is no surprise that this show enjoyed such success in the West End and on Broadway, enjoy a tremendous night’s entertainment, with the Knights, while it pitches camp in Derby – it runs until Sat 21st.