Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 2nd June, 2019
Eric Idle’s musical parody of Arthurian legend speaks of a leader who will rise from chaos to unite a divided country… We couldn’t half do with King Arthur today! I doubt such a leader will spring from the current Tory leadership contest.
This lavish production at the Crescent is directed by Keith Harris, bringing together all the technical elements of the production and marrying them to an outstanding cast, with the result being a hugely impressive, massively enjoyable visit to the theatre. They really have pulled out all the stops with this one. Colin Judges’s splendid set of castle walls, towers and trees has just the right amount of storybook illustration to it, while Stewart Snape’s costume designs remain true to the period (when they need to) and introduce glamorously anachronistic specimens (when they don’t): the Camelot presented here has more in common with Las Vegas than Medieval England! There is also an appearance by a magnificent wooden rabbit. Of course there is.
Joe Harper heads the cast as King Arthur, imperious, regal and daft in equal measures. He has a fine singing voice too – in fact, when the knights all sing together, the quality enriches the material. Idle’s songs are pastiches, sometimes simplistic in structure, but the chorus at the Crescent still delivers the goods. The musicians, under the baton of Gary Spruce add pizzazz and texture to the score. Beautiful.
The female lead is Tiffany Cawthorne’s Lady of the Lake, with a dazzling display of vocal fireworks that doesn’t take itself seriously, mocking the over-singers and belters of musical theatre and elsewhere. Cawthorne is also a delightful comic player and doesn’t miss a trick.
Among the knights there is plenty to relish: Mark Horne’s camp Sir Robin, Paul Forrest’s heroic Lancelot (who has a surprise for us later on that is deliciously realised), and Nick Owenford’s Marxist-peasant-turned-loyal-knight Dennis Galahad. I always have a soft spot for the faithful manservant Patsy, and here Brendan Stanley does not disappoint in a masterclass of a portrayal that demonstrates how supporting roles can make a mark. Brilliant.
There are so many highlights, so many hilarious throwaway moments, I can’t mention them all, but I have to bring attention to Katie Goldhawk’s defiant posturing as the stubborn Black Knight, Jack Kirby’s Hibernian enchanter, Tim, Luke Plimmer’s Not Dead Fred, and Dave Rodgers as a taunting French soldier.
For me, the funniest scene is between Herbert (Nick Doran) and his father (Toby Davis), with a couple of dim-witted guards and a daring rescue by Lancelot. Doran plays the gayness of the role without mockery or stereotype and his Herbert is all the more endearing because of it.
You don’t have to be a Monty Python aficionado to be royally entertained. For those of us that are, it’s fun to identify where Eric Idle nicked the ideas from. Only the other day I was bemoaning the fad for adapting every bloody film into stage musicals – this is one of the best ones, not least because it makes fun of the theatrical form as much as sending up the content.
Director Keith Harris gets the tone spot on and for almost all of it, the required energy levels are there to carry it off. This is a real tonic of a production, joyous, silly and glorious – now, if only I could stop whistling THAT SONG from The Life Of Brian…