Steve Thompson’s new play takes the real life hoo-ha surrounding the broadcast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus on nationwide television in America in 1975 and fashions a snappy, entertaining comedy about censorship and the sense of humour problem in two nations divided, as Shaw said, by a common language.
Two of the Python team, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam, go to court over changes made to their script, though a lawyer argues that cutting out bits of the video does not amount to the same thing.
They don’t worry too much about the Jimmy Hill as Queen Victoria sketch; but they do resent the excision of bums and boners and sexual self-pleasuring. “People in Idaho will watch this,” says the ABC network; “People in Idaho don’t have genitals?”
The rhythm of that exchange is a good example of how Thompson understands how comedy works. But where Edward Hall’s production takes off is not in the cultural no-man’s land between the Pythons and the television executives, but in the courtroom itself, where the hearing veers into a sketch worthy of the programme.
Matthew Marsh as the federal judge eventually rejects the injunction but not before implying, in a series of hilarious, sly interventions, that he’s sorry to be a spoilsport; and allowing a broadcast disavowal.
And what the play conveys superbly, and humorously, is the sense of how talking about comedy kills it stone dead: Noël Coward is held up as a model of comedy writing probity by someone who’s obviously never read him, nor between his lines.
Palin and Gilliam – the one mild and modest but twisting himself into unaccustomed anger, the other smiley, hippy-ish and (ironically) American – are played, not impersonated, by Harry Hadden-Paton and Sam Alexander as easily recognisable approximations to Gyles Brandreth and Mike Myers.
These are delicious performances, well supported by a fine cast including Charity Wakefield as the Pythons’ sassy publicist, Issy Van Randwyck as a svelte network executive and Clive Rowe as a hard-boiled, nimble-witted lawyer.
Gilliam’s visual genius as the Pythons’ cartoonist is deftly honoured in Francis O'Connor’s beautiful design of cut-outs and perspectives, and Rick Fisher’s lighting throws a mellow nimbus on the perennial humourlessness of the language police; as well as on the “soft liberal parenting” of the BBC which led to such joyous aberrations as the war-time secret love of bisexuals sketch – and the squashy farting foot that bears inexorably down on self-righteous prudes protecting their sponsors and anodyne broadcasting standards.