Sitting in the audience of Spamalot was like arriving late at a party when the alcohol has been flowing for a while yet you’re stone cold sober. I was surrounded by people who were laughing so hard they were in danger of coughing up vital organs, yet I was only occasionally amused and sometime even, dare I say it given the show’s phenomenal success on Broadway, a little bored.
Boasting the strapline: “lovingly ripped off from the motion picture,” Spamalot does exactly that. It crams in as many of the gags from Monty Python and the Holy Grail as it can (regardless of whether they work in a stage context) as well as squeezing in numerous references to other Python skits. The only thing missing was the dead parrot.
The Terry Gilliam influenced set design is a nice touch and there are some genuinely amusing episodes, particularly when the show pokes fun at the conventions of musical theatre (ALW gets a particular kicking). The Song That Goes Like This, sung by Hannah Waddington’s statuesque Lady of the Lake is an entertaining stab at stage balladeering and her second-half dressing room lament at her character’s lack of anything to do, is also pretty funny. Unfortunately a lot of these references are pitched squarely at American audiences with nods to Las Vegas excess and US game shows not sitting that well on a British stage. This cultural disparity is most obvious in the song You Won’t Succeed, a dubious anthem to the pointlessness of staging a musical without any Jews, a situation simply not applicable in the West End. (Though a rip-off of the bottle dance from Fiddler on the Roof is one of the best things in a blandly choreographed show.)
The cast however can’t be faulted. Tim Curry, returning to the West End for the first time in twenty years as Arthur, King of the Britons, was basically Tim Curry. Which is fine, as he’s very good at it. (Simon Russell Beale will be taking over the role in the new year.) Tom Goodman-Hill does amazingly well too, playing both Lancelot as well as a number of John Cleese’s characters from the film, including a certain bad-tempered Frenchman. And Robert Hands makes a decent (brave, brave) Sir Robin.
This is a show that knows its audience and plays to them. Not that they were complaining. Most people begin roaring and applauding whenever a familiar character simply walked on stage, and Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life, crow-barred in from The Life Of Brian turned into a full on sing-along. The enthusiasm was often difficult to resist especially in the second half. But even though I’m very fond of the film, the lexical dexterity and general irreverence that made it so entertaining have been obliterated through repetition.
Mike Nichols’ production is not a bad show, but it does feel like one perhaps resting on its laurels after its Broadway success. And while its big, brash, almost panto-like style clearly works for some people, for the most part it left me cold. If you want to see something that gently plays with the conventions of musical theatre, Avenue Q or for that matter even The Producers would be a much better bet.