Monday, 21 July 2014

Review: MONTY PYTHON LIVE (MOSTLY) - flogging a dead parrot?

Monday, 21 July 2014

The last performance of Monty Python's reunion/farewell show at London's O2 stadium was broadcast on GOLD last night, and simulcast around the world. It was a historic moment, as it officially drew a curtain on Monty Python as a comedy entity. Their seminal sketch show Monty Python's Flying Circus finished in 1974, they haven't made a feature film since 1983, and Graham Chapman's untimely death in 1989 forever dented the ensemble, but now the gang have officially bid fans goodbye.

You can be cynical about the impetus behind these summer shows, but the Pythons are candid about it being a financial matter in some respects. How do you turn down an alleged £2.2m each for doing just 10 performances? John Cleese is very open about needing the cash because he owes his ex-wife alimony, but Eric Idle's been more romantic about the idea of formally ending their union with a run of big farewell shows.

Whatever the reason for its existence, MONTY PYTHON LIVE (MOSTLY) was an important event for myself and many other comedy fans. I've been a fan of the Pythons since the late-'80s, and many of their sketches and jokes are indelibly stamped on my brain. I tend to prefer their films (Holy Grail and Life of Brain primarily), as the sketch show was very hit-and-miss and can't help but feel dated in comparison. We're just such a long way from 1969 that I'm not sure newcomers would appreciate Flying Circus in quite the same way. It looks so ugly and cheap now, and you have to root around to find the hilarious sketches that have withstood the test of time.

Was this farewell show a worthwhile thing? It was inevitably a very mixed evening's entertainment. For obvious reasons, it was never going to be a high-octane performance, as the surviving Pythons are all in their seventies. Cleese famously can't do his signature Silly Walk any more. So much of the evening was actually filled with archive clips (when sets were being changed), or bolstered with song-and-dance routines performances by much sprightlier people. Unfortunately, this did give the show a disappointing feel, because the Pythons tended to just wander on and do old sketches—which the audience know verbatim. I didn't mind that, but it would have been nice to get some new material, and the choice of the "old favourites" wasn't always great.

The second half of the show was a noticeable improvement, mainly because the structure seemed to get more anarchic and inventive. Sketches started to bleed into one another, the set changes felt quicker, and it was more like seeing the TV show's spirit transplanted to the stage. As best you can, when you're still working around the physical limitations of five men past their prime. Still, Eric Idle and Michael Palin were surprisingly active compared to the others, Cleese had occasions where his youthful attack of a script came flowing back, Terry Jones can now play 'old gents in bowler hats' better than ever (but appears to have lost the high-pitch screech of his frumpy "woman" characters), and Gilliam was given more to do than the TV show ever allowed (when he was the animator making cameo appearances). Also nice to see Carol Cleveland on-stage with the boys, having appeared in many Python sketches when 'dragging up' wouldn't do.

Monty Python Live (Mostly) was always going to be a mild disappointment, because everyone's favourite memories of the troupe are from 30-40 years ago, but as a celebration of the Python name it worked very well. It felt good to see them all together, one final time, having fun, giving the fans what they came to see. It could have been a lot better with more thought and fresh material, and had the slight whiff of a cash-grab because it felt a bit lazy at times... but, during the inevitable "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" climactic sing-along, after which the Pythons linked hands and bowed to the 15,000-strong audience (plus the millions of others watching around the world), I was suddenly moved.

I love these guys, see. They made world-class comedy in their heyday, and this was a well-deserved celebration of their legacy, while the majority of them are still able to put on a show. I can't really get upset about that, and thank them for the laughs.

Monty Python – 1969-2014.