It’s difficult to consider Monty Python’s Spamalot the least bit retro, yet to view Eric Idle’s master theatrical work with rose-coloured nostalgic glasses is more of a compliment to the musical’s still relevant and irreverent messages replete with a package of highly hummable songs.
Directed with a keen eye to capturing the timelessness of such absurdist comedy, Lezlie Wade – clearly a long-time Python fan – is spot-on when it comes to delivering in spectacular style the nonsensical essence of the stage work that debuted 18 years ago on Broadway.
The cast is top notch led by a singing, dancing, and brilliantly funny Jonathon Goad, as the bold, brave King Arthur leading his klutzy, anarchistic Knights of the Round Table in his quest to find the Holy Grail. Known for his dramatic efforts, he delighted the opening night patrons with an impressive set of strong vocal and deft dance skills.
It’s a gag-filled parody of a legendary figure that knows no bounds in terms of good taste, saucy digs at authority figures and endlessly cheeky allusions to sex, politics, life, and death. "I’m not dead yet,” screams one potential corpse being carted away so the company responds in kind observing neither barriers nor censors.
Set in 932 AD England, not Finland as the deliberately misleading opening number suggests, Stratford’s two-act seems to fly by as jokes, surrealistic sets, and wonderfully high-powered musical numbers replete with naughty lyrics so loved by Python fans both old and new.
Goad’s heroic King of the Britons gallops through the countryside with the aid of his trusty, very strait-laced patsy played with comedic vigour by Eddie Glen, whose deft handling of empty coconut shells provide the necessary equine sound of their invisible horses.
Along the way the gallant pair manage to assemble a troupe of grail seekers – none of whom possess much if any traces of nobility in their bloodlines – and encounter a peasant who, during the riotously funny, seemingly endless debates over coconuts, the necessity of royalty and the right to self-governance declares “We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune.”
While venturing into France – perhaps just for a change of scenery, Goad and his men come upon a guarded castle where one guard, in an outrageously exaggerated French accent defiantly answers the weary monarch’s request for assistance with one of the play’s many salty references to bodily functions, “I fart in your general direction.”
The tight-knitted company handles the numerous role changes swiftly in such a fast-moving production. One minute Liam Tobin, whose chief character is the one-time belligerent serf turned Sir Dennis Galahad, becomes the marvellously ridiculous Black Knight.
Aaron Krohn as the fearless yet suddenly softer, kinder, and considerably less macho Sir Lancelot, reappears magically in other guises in the blink of an eye without missing a step as a Knight of Ni, Tim the Enchanter, and a Mud Castle guard.
As Lancelot he gets to deliver one of the most relevant and juiciest lines to today’s audience, a clever observation on gay marriages: “Just think, in a thousand years this will still be controversial.”
Not surprisingly the opening night crowd responded instantly with vigorous hoots of approval and appreciative applause.
Anyone remotely acquainted with the production knows the importance of the Lady of the Lake, a mystical figure from whom the quest for the grail emanates.
In the character’s self-admitted quest for more stage time, the remarkably gifted vocal stylist Jennifer Rider-Shaw attacks her role with a boldness that befits such an independent-minded and strong-willed female in a truly backward medieval era, belting out her show stopping numbers with awe inspiring style, gutsy emotion, and power.
From day one creator Idle has publicized the theatrical event, with neither shame nor apology that it is “Lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” So, there is never a moment that audiences have been shocked or disappointed to find there are numerous repetitious moments from that cinematic vehicle and even other Python ventures.
Far from familiarity breeding contempt, a return to the days of the killer rabbit, a Camelot transformed into a modern-day Las Vegas filled with glittery show girls and Terry Gilliam inspired and presumably God-like hands and feet appearances from the skies above provides a much-welcomed bit of reminiscing for those of us weary of our own troubled times.
The Stratford event permits fine performers like McKinley Knuckle to trot out his stuff as Sir Not Appearing and a dancing monk; Jason Sermonia to demonstrate his versality via Sir Bors, a dancing nun; Liam Tobin to entertain with his tomfoolery as Sir Dennis Galahad and the Black Knight and Henry Firmston to be an almost but not-quite sensible historian and a Not Dead Fred.
Sticking to the essential silliness of the plot, Trevor Patt finds himself playing a radically altered Sir Robin who, in order to find the grail, must assist King Arthur in producing a successful Broadway musical … with the requisite acquisition of a Jew in the company.
Aidan DeSalaiz finds his inner Mrs. Galahad and Sir Bedevere, Josh Doig handles the chores of Prince Herbert, French guard, and minstrel while Devon Michael Brown showcases Brother Maynard.
Add to the mix head-banging monks with their delightfully mournful Gregorian chants, the Laker Girls, a worthy collection of songs with Idle’s lyrics alongside his and collaborator John Du Prez’s music now directed by Laura Burton.
The lively dance routines were choreographed by Jesse Robb while surrealistic design, projection, lighting, and sound provided respectively by David Boechler, Renée Brode, Sean Nieuwenhuis, and Emily C. Porter and there you have the full package of top-notch entertainment.
Stratford’s version of Spamalot, while not radically changed from its earlier Python origins, nonetheless fits comfortably like an old shoe and worth another viewing resulting in perfunctory chuckles and convulsive belly laughs via calculated rudeness and improprieties.
If one relishes Idle’s off-the-wall humour and the kind of absurdist yet often poignant British satiric comedy first nurtured by Spike Milligan’s The Goon Show with Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe on radio from 1951-60; and the stage hit from the early 60s Beyond the Fringe featuring Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, then this production is your cup of tea served with a slice of spam.
Spamalot continues at the Avon Theatre until October 28. Just remember, what happens in Camelot, stays in Camelot and if you leave the theatre humming Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, the company has succeeded in the quest for his own holy grail.