The numerous Gumbys in the audience drew few raised eyebrows, but the cardinal from the Spanish Inquisition was quite impressive. Some Monty Python fans behave like Rocky Horror Show devotees, dressing up as characters from the show. And since these are the seminal comedy group’s first shows in more than 30 years and likely to be their last ever (Graham Chapman died in 1989, hence the subtitle for this run “One Down, Five To Go”), the followers’ surreal glad-rags are out in some force.
This show is a very smart piece of work. It seems to have been put together to maximise the impression of value for money while minimising the quintet’s amount of stage performance. Live sketches are regularly interspersed with 1970s video clips (many of which still have the BBC-TV laugh track intact) and, doubtless as a result of Eric Idle’s additional role as director, a generous clutch of big production musical numbers. Music has formed an ever stronger vein of Idle’s work (he is, after all, the man behind the Python-based hit musical Spamalot), but it’s still odd, to say the least, to watch an ensemble of 20 cavort for several minutes in designer lingerie simply to introduce the “Blackmail” sketch. As little as half of the evening may be composed of actual onstage Pythoning.
Fortunately, the selection of that material is 22-carat, a mixture of audience and group favourites. Several of the video segments are classic Terry Gilliam animation sequences; the late Chapman makes a few virtual appearances (as does, of all people, Prof Stephen Hawking, electronically intoning the “Galaxy Song” from the film The Meaning of Life). Once-token female Carol Cleveland still appears bodacious at the age of 72, and those trademark bizarre Python segues between sketches finally acquire a momentum as the show gallops towards its close with a sequence of “Argument”, “Spam”, “Dead Parrot” and “Cheese Shop” (with Michael Palin and John Cleese corpsing winningly on the first night). The final number is extravagant but obscure, a feint for the inevitable encore of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.
Criticism is irrelevant to a show like this. All 10 arena performances sold out faster than you can sing “I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK”, and the audiences are coming not to see a group of septuagenarians in 2014 but to connect to the history they embody – and they still do embody it with enough panache to keep the faithful enraptured. The last time I went to a reunion concert by a comparably influential group it was The Velvet Underground – the Pythons are funnier.