After years honing his skills on piffling roles such as Hamlet, Macbeth and Galileo on the British stage, Simon Russell Beale has at last graduated to the pinnacle of dramatic achievement: playing King Arthur in the West End’s Spamalot (the stage musical “lovingly ripped off” from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Russell Beale has just replaced the previous king (Tim Curry) – a move that might usually precipitate a constitutional crisis, but here is the occasion for general merrymaking among all peasants in the land (well, the stalls at least). He plays the monarch to the manner born (well, practised: he has already played it in on Broadway, although as America hadn’t been discovered in 932 AD, that surely scarcely counts).
It’s wonderful to see this fine classical actor reveal his mischievous side. From the moment he canters on to the clip-clop of coconut shells, hips swaying as he steadies his imaginary steed, he holds the attention with a delightful blend of weary dignity and precise, camp impishness. “To horse!” he cries valiantly, prancing nimbly off the stage, and, as he tries to round up his knights, he handles the endless prevarications of his recalcitrant subjects (“we’re an autonomous collective”) with the resigned patience of a classics teacher facing a particularly trying class of 14-year-olds. Pantomime surely beckons.
Elsewhere, all is splendid nonsense. Four months since Mike Nichols’ production opened in the West End, it is looking sprightly and tight, with both cast and audience revelling in the execution of much-loved scenes. The castle of rude French knights is particularly funny, as the raspberry-blowing knights break off from hurling elaborate abuse to hold an earnest seminar on modern art. Robert Hands (“brave” Sir Robin), Christopher Sieber (dashing Sir Galahad), Tom Goodman-Hill (warlike Sir Lancelot) and David Birrell (long-suffering Patsy) all play with polished timing.
What makes the show (written by Eric Idle, with music by Idle and John Du Prez) is that it targets both the heroic epic and the clichés of the blockbuster musical. And Hannah Waddingham is superb as the disgruntled leading lady.
Python-haters should stay away, but this remains an evening of enjoyable daftness for everyone else who is not dead yet.
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