Terry Gilliam directs operas. Terry Jones writes children’s books. And Michael Palin is that nice man who does the travel programmes on the BBC. Enfant terribles? Not exactly. Yet somehow, 40 years on, this virtuoso comedy collective has retained its gift for skewering the establishment, even as its members become ever more entrenched in it.
Monty Python Live (mostly) is subtitled ‘One down, five to go’, but the spectacular O2 show has no interest in tender reflections on mortality, nor have the surviving five (Gilliam, Jones, Palin, John Cleese and Eric Idle) lost their bite. The late Graham Chapman is honoured and then swiftly lampooned in an opening Gilliam animation, his severed head punted into the cosmos, setting the tone for an evening of clever silliness and startling surrealism.
Idle devised and directs a razzle-dazzle show, with a youthful, high-kicking chorus covering the not-so-quick changes and live action interspersed with clips of anarchic genius. Watching screens constantly isn’t ideal, but it’s a pleasure to be reminded of gems like Fish-Slapping Dance, Philosophers’ Football and the Batley Townswomen’s Guild’s Re-enactment of Pearl Harbour, plus Gilliam’s madcap, endlessly inventive shorts.
The pace is necessarily gentle, meaning some dance numbers outstay their welcome. Arlene Phillips (who choreographed Meaning of Life) does a good job with a weird brief, and the result – Spamalot meets Hot Gossip – is about right tonally, but the presentation is too slick to gel with Python’s shambolic charm. Besides, when you’ve come to see the comedy equivalent of The Beatles, you get restless when the Fab Five are absent for too long.
The show is most successful when it’s brutally honest about the situation; one change is covered simply by chatty text admitting they need to fill time. The fourth-wall-breaking meta humour, so revolutionary when it first appeared in Flying Circus, is well translated here, deconstructing the reunion stage show as much as the TV series and films critiqued their own media, or Idle’s Spamalot took apart the musical.
Besides, such pauses are perfectly agreeable when each is followed by another example of the Pythons’ exceptional back catalogue. Slick sets materialise and the action is projected onto big screens, so those of us up in the gods can appreciate the nuances of these live renditions and enjoy the moments when one performer reduces another to helpless giggles. The delivery isn’t quite as frenzied, but the timing is still sharp, and the material still a wonderful blend of erudition and juvenile nonsense.
A couple of sketches have crossed over from dated to antique curiosities, while others seem eerily prescient: the Blackmail game show, showcasing nasty tabloid intrusion, hits a topical target with more accuracy than Richard Bean’s blander offering at the National. Authority figures, from religious leaders and policemen to judges and colonels, fall like ninepins, but the more overtly satirical work is juxtaposed with joyous irreverence. Why a recurring joke about a llama? The better question is, why not?
Idle is the standout performer, embracing proceedings with puppyish glee and reminding us of what a genuinely skilful songwriter he is: the Galaxy Song is curiously moving, at least until its wry punch line. Of course, the Python sketches eschew traditional punch lines, a problem Idle solves with smart creativity.
Palin, the perennial target for abuse, blends sweetness with wild-eyed mania, while Jones’s cross-dressing and falsetto shrieking is a delight. Cleese, now rotund and bordering on hoarse, noticeably lacks his trademark furious energy and elastic physicality, but lands his incredulous ripostes with consummate skill. Gilliam takes on extra acting duties to cover for Chapman, doing a good line in shuffling sidekick, and perennial collaborator Carol Cleveland still keeps pace with the chaps.
Some take to the musical extravaganza elements better than others (though it’s worth the price of admission alone to see Cleese grumpily twirling a ribbon), but once we get into the second half, it’s an unending string of storming hits. The audience roars recognition at the opening lines of such favourites as Spanish Inquisition, Argument Clinic, Cheese Shop and of course Dead Parrot, while my Canadian mother was particularly thrilled by the arrival of I’m A Lumberjack and the dancing Mounties.
It’s a reminder both of the group’s global reach, and the fact that they’ve been embraced by each new generation. What have the Pythons ever done for us? How about changed the comedy landscape around the world, inspired countless writers and performers, argued that art can and should be brave, challenging and uncategorisable, and illustrated that you can achieve universal popularity with intellectual, precisely conceived work.
Proof if proof were needed: the O2 audience had a vast range of ages, represented the two genders equally, and signalled total devotion through both its rapturous response and Rocky Horror-like dress-up. (Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, particularly not in the queue to the ladies’ loos – see left!)
Special guest Bill Bailey fared well, but was giddy with excitement – ‘I’m on stage with the Pythons!’ he roared, clearly living out a childhood dream. Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking took part in a fab pre-taped skit, and we all joined in with encore song ‘Always Look On The Bright Side of Life’, even Sir Tom Stoppard.
This was not high culture or low culture; it was not divisive – it was universal. Soon, the Pythons return to their operas and book tours and travel programmes, but they leave our lives that little bit richer for having experienced this historic night.