Friday 11 July 2008

Endless silliness

Monty Python’s Spamalot, Palace Theatre, London

Running at the Palace Theatre since October 2006, where it set up home after winning the Tony Award for Best Musical on Broadway in 2005, Spamalot has been through several cast changes. The Palace’s first King Arthur was Tim Curry, who handed over to Simon Russell Beale in January 2007. Both actors had previously performed the role on Broadway. Following Russell Beale were Peter Davidson and Alan Dale, and Sanjeev Bhaskar, perhaps our best-known British-Asian actor, has just taken on the crown.

Little needs to be said of the plot of Spamalot: the show’s marketing explicitly states that is it ‘lovingly ripped off’ from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and there will be very few audience members who have not seen the film. A few concessions have been made to the new format, most of which are very deliberately self-deprecating of musical theatre. The Lady of the Lake, for example, who does not appear at all in the film, has a large role in the stage show, providing a love interest for Arthur and an opportunity for such chord-change-filled songs as ‘The Song That Goes Like This’ and ‘Twice in Every Show’. The Lady of the Lake is currently played by Nina Söderquist, winner of Swedish television’s West End Star. As one would expect from such a casting process, Söderquist’s voice and look exactly suit the role. Her acting lets her down however; even in this far from subtle part she appears brash.

The script is almost identical to that of the film, with whole sections lifted and repeated verbatim. This works well with some scenes: the swallow conversation and French taunting provoke uproarious laughter as the audience recognise their old favourites. Other moments fare less well: Arthur’s meeting with the Black Knight is dramatically weak and, ultimately, superfluous. The first half of the show works better than the second half, where the already thin plot dwindles to almost nothing. This, of course, could just as well be said of The Holy Grail, but where the film gets away with dissolving into nonsense – and revels in it – the show tries to hang on to some notion of guiding narrative and fails.

Several of Spamalot’s songs will be familiar from The Holy Grail but most are brand new and very entertaining. The cast are all fantastic singers and Casey Nicholaw’s choreography in the big chorus numbers makes for exhilarating viewing. Sanjeev Bhaskar is not a singer but he copes adequately with the material, his voice only flagging towards the end of the show. The audience clearly enjoyed Bhaskar’s performance; the slight unnaturalness that held him up on press night will presumably disappear as he becomes more accustomed to the role.

Although the cast as a whole were remarkably professional, with barely a note off-key or a limb out of place, the best performance was Andrew Spillett as Patsy. Spillett showed greater comic sensitivity than most and was a sturdy partner for Bhaskar throughout. His response to Arthur in the song, ‘I’m All Alone’, was particularly successful, following Bhaskar balefully around the stage in an attempt to get himself noticed.

While some theatre-goers may tire of Spamalot’s endless silliness and be frustrated by the lack of original material in the show, diehard Monty Python fans are always going to love it. Bhaskar does King Arthur well, and the show is enjoyable to watch, but in the end it doesn’t really matter who plays who, as long as there are coconuts, a giant wooden rabbit and knights tap-dancing on tables. 

Till 3 January 2009


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