Spam filter set with care

Lisa Martland

The new production of Spamalot has been pared down but not at the expense of laughs or its Pythonesque essence, composer John Du Prez and star Bonnie Langford tell Lisa Martland

It’s only just over three years since Spamalot – the musical ‘lovingly ripped off’ from the classic 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail – was last seen in the West End but the new production, currently running at the Harold Pinter Theatre following an extensive UK tour, is regarded by some as a far sharper affair than its predecessor.

Composer John Du Prez, best known for writing music for more than 20 films (including Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life), made his Tony Award-winning Broadway debut when he collaborated with Eric Idle on Spamalot in 2005. So how does he think this latest interpretation compares?

“The Broadway production, which then essentially transferred to London, was very large and sophisticated in all respects – from cast and orchestra to costumes and sets. There were a lot of elaborate mechanics onstage too. It would be have been hugely ambitious to have considered taking it on the road.

“Instead ATG and director Christopher Luscombe came onboard with a whole new take on the show. Everything was trimmed and stripped down, including the script, and as a result the comedy became even sharper and created whole new levels of irony at the same time.”

The Holy Grail movie, with its alternative take on King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail, was thought to have been made on a budget of around £200,000 – which Idle likes to point out is less than the legal bill on Spamalot. Perhaps it is not surprising then that the back to basics approach to this latest production has, in Du Prez’s eyes, harks back to its origins in university comedy revue.

“In many way the Python approach was all about the simplicity, that’s what made it shine,” he says. “The way characters riding horses gallop around banging coconuts together is just one example. We wanted to get back to basics, to see what we could achieve with just a piano and a box of hats. To create something that didn’t depend a lot on technology and zooms in on the anarchic humour.”

There have been several cast changes since Spamalot first set off on tour in spring 2010 but for the London run comedian Marcus Brigstocke and impressionist Jon Culshaw share the role of King Arthur alongside Todd Carty as Patsy. Bonnie Langford plays the diva otherwise known as The Lady of the Lake. The show’s libretto often gives cast members the opportunity to break through the ‘fourth wall’ that conventionally keeps performer and punter at a distance from one another.

Part of this playfulness with the audience manifests itself in the many parodies of other classic musicals with Les Miserables, Fiddler On the Roof, West Side Story, Man of La Mancha and more all referenced. The Lady of the Lake’s duet with Sir Galahad entitled The Song that Goes Like is an obvious spoof of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s power ballads, with lyrics including: “We’ll be singing this til dawn, you’ll wish that you weren’t born, let’s stop this damn refrain, before we go insane.”

Although, in essence, the show’s score has stayed pretty much intact, the song You Won’t Succeed on Broadway, which suggests it was hard to have a hit show on the Great White Way ‘if you don’t have any Jews’, has been reworked to pick up on the TV reality show phenomenon. Renamed You Won’t Succeed in ‘Showbiz’ or whatever town the show is visiting, the lyrics make fun of celebrities such as Cheryl Cole, Simon Cowell and Susan Boyle (shot by Sir Robin, the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot when she starts to sing).

Du Prez’s relationship with the members of Monty Python, and in particular Idle, began when he wrote additional music for Life of Brian (1978). He went on to pen the scores for both The Meaning of Life and A Fish Called Wanda (other projects have also included Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits and Wind in the Willows, directed by Terry Jones). The Sheffield-born composer also found time to perform as a trumpet player with the band Modern Romance, which enjoyed chart success in the early 1980s.

In 2000 and 2003, he was musical director for Idle’s two North American stage tours, Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python and The Greedy Bastard Tour, an invaluable experience when it came to writing Spamalot. “The concern was that Americans wouldn’t laugh at Monty Python material, so touring 30 cities allowed us to gauge how audiences would respond, to explore how the material would work with live audiences.”

There was the danger too that dedicated followers of Monty Python might have a negative reaction to Idle and Du Prez’s musical take on The Holy Grail, despite the fact that trouble was taken to include well-known scenes featuring the Trojan Rabbit, knights who say ‘Ni’ and French soldiers catapulting cows.

Du Prez explains that he and Idle were wary of being too respectful of the original material: “We faced all kinds of pitfalls with the hardcore Monty Python fans, but we had to embrace the new medium we were working in and prepare ourselves for letting bits go. A lot of projects fail if the creators are not prepared to do that. In our case it meant retaining what worked for the stage and also playing with the conventions of that medium. We tried things and they didn’t work, there were between 20 and 30 songs that we didn’t use. When the cow gets fired over the wall, we gave it a song, but it had to go, it would have wrecked the show.”

So has the process of working for theatre been very different to what he is used to? “When scoring a film, you are creating an emotional soundtrack for the audience, and if you lose sight of that, it’s fatal, just as it is in the theatre. But when you think your work for a film is perfect, you can put it away in a can and go away.

“I have so much respect for the players in live theatre who can perform a show eight times a week for two years. Sometimes backstage it’s like the Edinburgh Tattoo, there are so many changes of costume etc, and they perform so brilliantly. They are very special people. The band, which has been cut back to just a seven-piece for this new version, also does an incredible job.”

While a great deal has been made of the musical theatre roles Bonnie Langford has played since appearing in TV’s Dancing On Ice in 2006, just a glance at her credits (Cats, Sweet Charity, Fosse) reveal that the actress has never been a stranger to the genre. However, she does admit that The Lady of the Lake in Spamalot was not a role on her radar.

Believing that the part was one cornered by tall, statuesque actors, Langford never imagined it would be one she would be asked to play: “I knew Hannah Waddingham had portrayed the Lady of the Lake in the London and Broadway productions and it will come as no surprise to anyone that she and I do not swap clothes. I had been in the US for a couple of years, but when I returned last summer and the job was mentioned to me, I discovered that not being particularly tall didn’t matter in this incarnation of the show. I was so thrilled, I think it’s the most fun I’ve ever had on a show.

“It really is excellently written, really tight. The other day I watched a run-through and saw the bits I usually don’t get to see, and even in a rehearsal room with no atmosphere, I was aching with laughing. It just doesn’t stop for a second.”

Langford is required to sing in a wide range of musical styles in the show – switching from opera to pop to country – and admits there were some early nerves: “I was joining a company that was already up and running and I really needed to be up to speed, but I always love to attack a new challenge and learn more. There should never be a time you stop learning.”

She also gets a kick out of all the theatrical in-jokes in Spamalot, giving her a chance to “take the mickey out of everything I’ve done in an affectionate way” and even give her “Sarah”, a reference to Sarah Brightman, her school friend and co-star in Cats, for which Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the kind of ballads parodied in Spamalot.

In recent years Langford has been spending half her time in New York where she first performed at the age of ten as Baby Jane opposite Angela Lansbury in Gypsy and more recently of course in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago. “It would be presumptuous to expect people there to know me, so the evening is more a theatrical anecdote show, so audiences can know something different about me.”

Next on the agenda for Langford is the part of office manager Roz in the Dolly Parton musical 9 to 5 which opens at Manchester Opera House on October 16. Until then she will join her nieces Summer, Scarlett and Zizi Strallen in the West End.

And why should theatregoers come to Spamalot in particular? “For the laughs and fun, its immense charm and the way the show really goes back to the Python roots with its eccentricity and silliness.”

* Spamalot continues at the Harold Pinter Theatre until September 9

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