“Goodness Gracious Ni” read a typical headline in the build-up to Sanjeev Bhaskar’s inheritance of King Arthur’s crown. And it’s a big crown to fill – after Tim Curry, Simon-Russell Beale and Alan Dale, Bhaskar is the man charged with taking it over the finish line as Spamalot enters the twilight phase of its West End run.
But, rest assured Python fans, it’s retiring with dignity. Granted, Bhaskar is not the strongest singer, nor does he always look entirely comfortable under the endlessly expectant gaze of a West End audience, but what he does bring is a sense of rough-and-ready charm, a suitably fresh and cavalier approach to a role that has to be taken by the scruff of the neck.
Bhaskar revealed in the run-up to playing King Arthur that his wish is to make people forget the fact he is Indian, and only in doing that would he fully be doing his job. There are the occasional nods to Goodness Gracious Me - the mention of “chuddies” for example feels rather pantomimic and unnecessary – but besides this it’s very much business as usual as he cavorts through numbers such as the brilliantly kitsch “Find Your Grail”, “I’m All Alone” and the crowd-pleasing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.
But a leader is only as strong as his army, and Bhaskar has some serious heavyweights on his side. As Sir Dennis Galahad and Prince Herbert’s Father, Michael Xavier shows real comic dexterity, displaying both foppishness and bluster with consummate ease. Special mention must also go to Gerard Carey as a perfectly cast Prince Herbert and Haydn Oakley, standing-in as the sexually confused Sir Lancelot.
As The Lady of the Lake, and the only female on stage who gets to do anything more than a scantily-clad high-kick, Nina Soderquist is a triumph. The winner of a Swedish reality show entitled ‘West End Star’, she’s a busty, vamp-ish, powerhouse of a leading lady who more than merits her place. The only shame is that, as acknowledged by writer Eric Idle in the song “The Diva’s Lament”, she really doesn’t have much to do after the interval.
Of all the big-hitters in the West End, it’s a pity we’re losing Spamalot. It’s slick, it’s witty, and in Bhaskar, it has found another capable King. One moment towards the end endorses this more than any other. When his servant Patsy reveals that he’s Jewish, and Arthur enquires why he hadn’t said this before, Patsy replies “well it’s not the sort of thing you say to a heavily armed Christian”. The roars of laughter said enough – Bhaskar has done his job.
- Theo Bosanquet
NOTE: The following THREE STAR review dates from January 2007 and this production's earlier cast, with Simon Russell Beale as King Arthur.
Simon Russell Beale has played Hamlet, Richard III, Brecht’s Galileo, Uncle Vanya, and Konstantin in The Seagull. To this impressive roster of roles he can now add King Arthur in Spamalot, prancing on to the Palace stage oblivious to all absurdity and keeping good time to the hoof-clicking sound of invisible coconuts.
He took over the role on Broadway last year from the physically satisfied Tim Curry, whose benign silliness he does not attempt to replicate. Instead, Russell Beale plays Arthur for delightful real, as if he actually believed what was happening in the show and could somehow make some contribution towards its serious intent. He participates in this madcap lunacy with a glazed smile and touching belief in its emotional dishonesty.
It must be a funny thing, playing a king and assuming a dignity and status for which you are completely unqualified. This is how Russell Beale plays King Arthur and, in fact, exactly how he played Richard III, a performance once memorably described as a peculiar love child of Pere Ubu and Gertude Stein. Although King Arthur lops off a few (other knight’s) limbs in the forest, he is not really a psychotic mass murderer. The alarming truth of Russell Beale’s performance is that he would quite happily be so, should the opportunity arise. Instead, there are songs to be sung and moves to be executed.
Lovingly ripped off, as they say, from the 1974 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Spamalot, by Eric Idle and composer John Du Prez remains a glorious medieval pantomime with nary a nod towards the serious musical theatre except when amateurishly ripping it off. The much vaunted Andrew Lloyd Webber spoof, “The Song That Goes Like This,” is so bad that only a tin-eared ignoramus would think it was a plausible satire. But it raises the roof and does so irresistibly when it changes key for no reason whatsoever.
The silly item is also sung, gloriously, by the imperious Hannah Waddingham, who turns out to be not only the Lady in the Lake, but also Arthur’s Lady Guinevere via a showcase musical comedy stint in Las Vegas. This sequence also involves a cheapo invocation of the Parisian sewers in Phantom of the Opera, complete with guttering candles and a rickety gondola; even if you believe this scene to be one of the greatest in modern musical theatre (which I do), the send-up is absolute perfection.
With the return of Little Shop of Horrors and the transatlantic success of The Producers, musical theatre has rediscovered its comedy roots at last, while Les Miserables and Phantom have advanced the operatic seriousness of the art form. Russell Beale’s involvement does not lend the project of Spamalot any increased credibility – that would be the last virtue it seeks – but it does underline the democratic fervour of all great theatre, which is to make no divisions within cultural parameters and give people sitting out there in the dark a really good time to boot.
- Michael Coveney
NOTE: The following THREE STAR review dates from October 2006 and this production's original cast, with Tim Curry as King Arthur.
It’s an odd paradox that the peculiar Britishness of the Monty Python comedy show (which ran on television from 1969 to 1974) has underpinned a runaway Broadway smash hit musical while the “coming home”, as it were, to London feels like an over-stretched disappointment.
“Lovingly ripped off”, as they say, from the knowingly amateurish 1974 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Spamalot – the knightly paradise where they eat jam a lot and, in the baby boom, push a pram a lot - is correctly assessed by its chief perpetrator, Eric Idle, who has written the book and lyrics, and some of the music (with composer John Du Prez), as a medieval pantomime. The hoardings outside the Palace proclaim the show to be in its 1,035th year. By the time you leave, it sure feels that way.
For Python nerds and geeks, all the best moments are here: a dozy King Arthur, “looking for men” (cue homophobic tittering), hoves into view on an invisible horse while his manservant bangs coconut shells together; a chain-mailed French taunter on the castle battlements declares “I fart in your general direction”; the giant knights in the tangled and very expensive forest say “Ni” and demand a shrubbery; the black knight is reduced to a livid torso in the limb-lopping duel; and the killer rabbit is seen off by the crudely blasphemous intonations of a mad monk.
One of the main jokes of the movie is the vigorous banishment of song and dance, especially when Prince Herbert thinks of love. Here, the quest for the Holy Grail becomes the search for a West End hit with a succession of big production numbers that marginalise the Herbert comedy. A sudden impulse to go to Camelot produces a big Las Vegas number that in New York was a flat-out funny Broadway show but in London seems a rather desperate attempt to have your musical comedy cake and eat it satirically at the same time.
The underlying premise, of course, is that hit musicals are essentially silly, insubstantial pageants. The most gorgeous gag is the first one of the show’s historical narrator being misheard in his request for a quick burst of merry England; instead, we get merry Finland and a stage full of yokels slapping each other with wet fish. In a piece that has only the defence of utter silliness to fall back on, the sillier things are the better.
It’s interesting that Idle first wanted to do a musical version of The Producers but was put off the scent by Mel Brooks who then did it himself. Where The Producers is smart and sassy, Spamalot is coarse and flabby. The parody of Andrew Lloyd Webber in “The Song that Goes Like This” is funny until you realise that, as a parody, it fails because it’s so less good than the alleged original.
The heartlessness hits a low in the number about the necessity of having Jews in a show. But while this item scored hilariously in New York, you really need Mel Brooks to make the point funny enough not to be offensive. Tim Curry repeats his wonderfully relaxed performance as King Arthur, although I spent most of the evening looking forward to seeing Simon Russell Beale succeed him the New Year. And Hannah Waddingham is magnificent as the Lady in the Lake who transmutes into Guinevere for no reason at all.
- Michael Coveney