TITCO do Spamalot!

The Invitation Theatre Company at St.Mary’s, Devizes ~ a dress rehearsal review

England, 932 AD, and the country is ravaged by plague, purposeless, pestered by the French, and in need of a firm hand at the helm.  Enter Arthur, King by virtue of the fact that once he was given a sword by a watery tart, and his hapless servant Patsy, coconut clip clopping across the land in search of knights to save the day, the funniest fart joke, and the nebulous Grail.

Such is the plot of Jemma Brown and TITCO’s production of Monty Python’s musical comedy Spamalot, loosely based on the film ‘Monty Python and The Holy Grail’ and first performed on Broadway in 2005.

There’s been a real buzz in town about this show, and I’m sure I’m not the only person to eagerly anticipate sinking into a pew in St. Mary’s and sighing with relief at having escaped from Britain’s current woes and impossible quests for a couple of hours.

I wasn’t disappointed.  Apart from being unable to resist comparing the England of Spamalot with the country today and our own search for a nebulous Grail I was completely lost from the outset in the world of mirth, magic, and medieval silliness that TITCO had created with a little help from their friends (knights who scaled the walls to black the windows out, masters of the lights and smoke, knights with needles and an eye for fabric and design) in what has to surely be the perfect venue for such a show.

For all its silliness, Spamalot is a complicated and fast paced show involving a lot of physical comedy and choreography, and multiple costume changes for some of the characters (particularly Ian Diddams, who can’t quite remember exactly how many but was most memorable as Tim the horny Scottish enchanter).  The cast did a great job of keeping up the momentum throughout, which bodes well for the rest of the run.  Fish slapping and Finnish dancing, creepy monks and can can dancers, flying cows and Trojan rabbits, loose-bowelled knights and mystical misunderstandings – at no time did the action flag and if anyone fluffed a line there was far too much going on to notice.

Anthony Brown stepped out of his role as Musical Director to give a creditable performance as the idealistic but naive Arthur with Debby Wilkinson doing a fine bit of character acting as Patsy; Terésa Isaacson with her powerful voice was an imposing presence as The Lady of the Lake; all the knights were hilarious, although I have to say how much I enjoyed the performances of Chris Worthy as the not-so-brave-or-continent Sir Robin, and Matt Dauncey’s macho-but-underneath-it-all-totally-gay Sir Lancelot (steady with that lance, sir, you’ll have someone’s eye out – just saying); and Will Sexton as Prince Herbert was wonderfully wet.

Then there were the nicely played cameos – melodious mischievous minstrels, legless knights and dancing nuns, political peasants and obstreperous Frenchmen – the old songs (who doesn’t need to be reminded to ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’?) and familiar jokes, and – my favourite Python thing ever – the Knights of Ni (‘Ni.’ ‘Ni.’ Etc.).

The only negative in my view (aside from the obvious stereotyping of gay people and the French) related to the script, and that was the ‘We Won’t Succeed On Broadway If We Don’t Have Any Jews’ song.  I’m still thinking about that and about what is acceptable in this day and age in the context of performance and historical record.  It didn’t sit well for me at all, but I’m sure that TITCO thought hard about including it and decided to keep it in in the spirit of authenticity rather than racism.

There’s so much that is good about TITCO’s show but for me the best thing about it is that this motley group of people, many of who would not be out of place in professional productions, are one big talented dancing singing and joking happy family, and their wild enthusiasm at working together shows in both the energy they display and the quality of their performances.

And who doesn’t like a good fart joke?

The Invitation Theatre Company’s production of Spamalot, despite its archaic political incorrectness, is just the kind of silliness we need in these ridiculously serious times.

Now, back to looking for that Grail…

(‘Ni.’)

© Gail Foster 25th June 2019

 

 

Devizes Musical Theatre; Jekyll and Hyde

*

On Tuesday night I went to the dress rehearsal of Devizes Musical Theatre’s production of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, at Dauntsey’s School.

‘Jekyll and Hyde’ is a contemporary pop rock musical, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’.  Stevenson’s book was published in 1886, during the decade when Freud began to practice, and Victorian dinner tables buzzed with talk of psychology, new scientific discoveries, sex, and religion, in the light of new understanding.  The musical was written by Leslie Bricusse, with score by Frank Wildhorn, and first hit the stage in 1990, before ending up on Broadway in 1997.

You know the story, right?  Scientist gets confused about good and evil, as you do, and a bit bothered about his dark desires, and makes a major blunder getting his hit together, as a consequence of which one part of himself behaves really badly and things go rapidly downhill.  Oh yes, and it’s an exploration of duality within the human psyche and of what can happen when the ‘natural’ instincts within man are allowed to go unchecked.  Take some dignitaries, a mad scientist, a dodgy potion, a sweet girl, a bad girl, a few hypocritical society types, and a brace of prostitutes, chuck ‘em all together and…what could possibly go wrong?  ‘Murder, Murder’, that’s what…

Devizes Musical Theatre have got a bit serious over the years, since their inception in 1965, and the Dauntsey’s stage is the best in the area.  This show is directed by Matt Dauncey, with a 16 piece orchestra conducted by Susan Braunton.  I know that I’m enjoying a show when the thought of an egg sandwich doesn’t cross my mind till afterwards, so we’ll see how we go.

The set is minimal, with dramatic lighting to emphasise the suspense and Gothic horror of it all, and, whilst ‘comments on style should never be made by those who have none’, the Victorian costumes (Jen Warren) are authentic and beautiful.  It is my observation that in some amateur productions you have a few glorious ones and everyone else has had to see what they could do with a table cloth and a tea towel, but there’s none of that here.

Jekyll (Hyde) is a massive part, and a huge test for any actor.  It’s all about the transformation (think American Werewolf in London, but less hairy), and keeping the parts ‘definite and opposite’, that quote coming from Gareth Lloyd, who plays Jekyll and Hyde but who is tonight in the audience, watching his understudy, Andrew Curtis, who will be playing the part in the matinee, on the stage.  One is amused by the fact that there are two Jekylls and two Hydes in the house, and I’m interested in how Gareth plays Hyde, and the differences between his and Andrew’s interpretation of the part.  Various quotes on his version include ‘playfully evil’, ‘anarchic’, and ‘physically animated’.  ‘Go on, give me your Hyde’ I say, and Gareth flops his hair over his eyes and looks at me with the only scary wild eye I can see.  Woah!

Andrew’s performance is tense, restrained, and quietly creepy, and his transformation is utterly believable.  I have five shiver moments during this show, and the one I get when he is ‘stroking’ Lucy during their dark and very well played duet, ‘A Dangerous Game’ is the least pleasant.  His Hyde gets more mad, twisted, contorted, tortured and frightening as the show goes on.  Whilst I prefer his acting over his vocals, there’s nothing that jars or disappoints, and I can’t take my eyes off him while he’s on the stage.

The other four shivers are as follows; the first ensemble number, ‘Façade’, when I realise that the orchestra and cast are rocking a Big Fat Sound, and that the show is going to be a) exciting and b) good; Lucy’s (Laura Deacon) first solo (so clear and powerful) ; the prostitutes’ dance (oh my eyes!) in ‘Bring On The Men’; and Emma (Naomi Ibbetson) and Lucy’s wonderful rendition of ‘In His Eyes’.

All of the parts are played well, but the truly shiny performances come from Laura Deacon and Andrew Curtis, and Naomi Ibbetson, whose voice can always be relied on.  There’s not a huge opportunity in this script for anyone else to shine much, to be fair, but Ian Diddams deserves a mention for his brutal brothel keeper, Spider, even if that beard does make him look a bit like Super Mario, and Sam Fillis for Stride.  And there’s no sign of that phenomena, present in more than a few amateur productions, that I call, rather bitchily, the lumpen chorus.  That’s people just hanging around looking like they’re thinking about egg sandwiches, and what day is it anyway, and oh, is it me now?  There’s none of that, there are all sorts of little cameos going on in the background, everyone’s on point, and no-one attracts the attention of my critical eye.

It’s a great show.  It’s scary, (maybe too scary for little kids), suspenseful, engaging, atmospheric, sexy and spectacular, and Devizes Musical Theatre should be pretty pleased with it.

And that was just the dress rehearsal…

Eight out of ten, and I didn’t think about an egg sandwich once.

Go along, if you can.

© Gail Foster 11th April 2018

(Creepy fact:  the Jack the Ripper murders started within weeks of Richard Mansfield’s performance and production of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in London, in 1888, and finished shortly after its short run came to a close…)