Review: Spamalot

Some of the Spamalot cast from the stellar Pick Me Up Theatre. Photographs: Matthew Kitchen
23 Nov 2016 @ 8.43 pm
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Here in York, we are very lucky. Not only do we have a number of prestigious venues for performance, we also have a wide selection of extremely talented amateur theatre companies, who don’t balk at taking on demanding shows.

Grand Opera House

Till Sat Nov 26 @ 7.30pm; Sat matinee 2.30pm

£13.40-£28.40

More details

This week at the Grand Opera House, the stellar Pick Me Up Theatre presents Monty Python’s Spamalot – as the publicity describes it, “A new musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture, Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. As Eric Idle created the book, lyrics and music (the latter in partnership with John du Prez), it’s a very Python show.

Fans will recognise a lot of non-Holy Grail Python dotted throughout – the fish-slapping dance, “Beautiful plumage!”, a giant tin of Spam, rough and tough men singing about wearing “suspenders and a bra”.

There is actually a surprising amount of Holy Grail content, considering that it can’t have been the easiest film to transform into a stage show. There is also new content – but more on that later.

Great gusto

The cast throw themselves into all this insanity with great gusto, and seem to be having a great time with the bizarre actions demanded of them. Still, I was sad for them that the front few rows of the stalls were not full.

These are the only seats you can see clearly from the stage once the lights go down, and it is dispiriting to think that you are playing to a small audience. I hope that the rest of us made enough noise for the actors to feel appreciated, and that the houses get fuller as the week progresses.

Amazing: Emily Ramsden
Amazing: Emily Ramsden

The indisputable star of the show has to be the amazing Emily Ramsden as the Lady of the Lake. She has a strong and versatile voice with a huge range, hitting the top note of The Song That Goes Like This with great power and apparently no effort at all.

She has the opportunity to show off her skills with torch, jazz and scat, inspirational Mariah Carey/Whitney Houston – all while sending up every genre, and dealing with some very quick costume changes.

Nick Lewis as King Arthur stays just the right side of pompous to be funny, rather than irritating. His comic timing is excellent, and I loved his performance of I’m All Alone – accompanied at first by his trusty servant Patsy, and eventually the entire company. His complete inability to think of anyone else but himself just gets funnier as the song goes on.

George Stagnell as Patsy really deserves the huge response he got at the curtain call. His physicality makes the role his own, and he creates pathos without making us cringe. He is a talented player of coconut halves, and I loved his tap dance!

John Whitney as Sir Lancelot
John Whitney as Sir Lancelot

The entire cast, including dancers and minstrels, are of a very high standard, many playing more than one role. I would like particularly to mention the excellent performances by John Whitney (Sir Lancelot the Homicidally Brave, and a French Taunter), Joe McNeice (Sir Dennis Galahad, the Dashingly Handsome, and Concorde: Lancelot’s trusty servant) and the sublime Andrew Caley (Mrs Galahad, and Brother Maynard: Camelot’s clergyman).

Those responsible for the multi-purpose set design, lighting (Adam Moore), and choreography (Stef Lyons) are all to be congratulated on the high standard of their work. The staging of King Arthur’s fight with the Black Knight (Matthew Kitchen) is particularly inventive.

Robert Readman directs with a sure hand and a great appreciation of the comic potential of the material. The live band deserves great praise for flawlessly producing some very difficult pieces.

Outdated moments

There were a couple of things that jarred on me quite badly, but I want to make it quite clear that this is to do with the show as written, and not with Pick Me Up Theatre.

I suppose this means that my complaints are being addressed to Eric Idle – a situation which is quite upsetting for me, as he has always been my favourite Python.

I try to write honest reviews of everything I see, and I would be ignoring a sizeable elephant in the room if I didn’t comment on these two sections.

Firstly, the story of Prince Herbert, who doesn’t want to marry the princess picked for him by his father for her “huge… tracts of land”. This version continues what is in the film by having Lancelot falling in love with Herbert.

Writer of Spamalot, Python Eric Idle. Photograph © PythonProfessor on Wikipedia
Writer of Spamalot, Python Eric Idle. Photograph © PythonProfessor on Wikipedia

I was initially rather surprised and uncomfortable that Prince Herbert is here put into an actual dress. Just because a man is reading as feminine, that doesn’t mean he actually wants to be a woman, or to wear women’s clothing – any more than a woman reading as masculine wants to be a man.

And then it got worse. Lancelot has most of his clothes removed against his will, and is forced into participating in a Copacabana-style musical number, until he accepts that he’s gay. It’s the kind of thing I’d expect from a Carry On film, and it’s jarringly outdated.

And at the finale, when Lancelot and Herbert are married, Lancelot informs the audience that “In a thousand years, this will still seem controversial!” Well, no, actually, I don’t think it will. Granted, the first few same-sex marriages were all over the media -but there are gay couples getting married all year round now, and few people so much as raise an eyebrow.

The other part of the show which I really disliked is the song You Won’t Succeed On Broadway.

The Grail quest now involves putting on a Broadway musical. However, Sir Robin, the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot (Adam Sowter), breaks into song to point out that there’s a problem: “We won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.”

I really don’t have words for this. Well, I have a few. Crass. Dated. Unfunny. Untrue.

Positive reaction

George Stagnell as Patsy
George Stagnell as Patsy

Near the end of the show, we discover that Patsy is Jewish. King Arthur asks why he didn’t say so, and Patsy replies: “It’s not the sort of thing you admit to a well-armed Christian” – a response that brought the house down, with whooping and hearty applause. I hope this positive reaction to Patsy’s fears means that I wasn’t alone in finding anti-Semitism less than amusing.

I want proper Python, Mr Idle. I want wit. I want surrealism. I want clever plays on words, and silly slapstick. I don’t want lazy and outdated stereotypes that went out with the end of the Seventies.

As I said above – my criticisms are aimed firmly at the show itself, which, to my great sadness, means at Eric Idle. The company give their all to the material and are, as always, as good as or better than full time professional performers. I look forward to seeing their next production.