It’s an odd phenomenon that sketches that rely so crucially on the surreal and the unexpected are now some of the most recited and referenced in the world, somewhat defeating the element of surprise that is key to much of the Pythons’s humour. Even people who have never seen a single sketch, let alone a movie, may be aware that Brian’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy, or that nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. The wheel turns on, and the avant-garde becomes the mainstream, counter-culture becomes culture.
The news, then, that the five remaining members of Monty Python were reuniting for a live show was met with mixed responses. Would the Pythons still be on form? Was it all just a cynical money-making scheme? Would we be treated to The World’s Funniest Jokes, or would the whole thing be as dead as a lately demised Norwegian Blue?
The answers to these questions are, respectively, “yes,” “maybe,” and “the hilarity’s certainly not dead yet.” If you’re in the position of trying to convince a friend or a loved one of the genius of the Pythons, this show won’t change their opinion – it’s firmly rooted in the classics of the repertoire, with very little new material. Nonetheless, for confirmed fans, the show is a real treat. There’s enough of a shake-up in the sketches to keep the audience on their toes, whilst essentially giving the fans what they want: the old favourites, performed well. There’s also the welcome inclusion of Carol Cleveland – appearing in a great many Flying Circus episodes she was a large part of what made the show what it is, and she’s as amusing and glamorous as ever.
Video footage of old sketches is shown during scene and costume changes. Whilst this might seem like a bit of a cop-out, it actually provides the opportunity both to showcase classic sketches not easily replicated onstage and to pay tribute to the talents of Graham Chapman, touchingly acknowledging his absence from the line-up without letting it detract from the overall hilarity.
This is not to say that the show is perfect; some questionable choices have been made. For example, I’d be interested to know how it was decided that “I Like Chinese” (from a Monty Python album, not Flying Circus or any of the films) should be made into a full musical number backed by dancers in what was essentially yellowface. There’s a fine line between irreverent irony and perpetuating stereotypes, and I feel that on this occasion the Pythons came down on the wrong side of it. This incident had the unfortunate effect of highlighting all the areas of the show where the Pythons’ comedy has not aged well. There’s a few bits which come over as homophobic, transphobic or sexist when looked at with a contemporary eye as they now must be, forming part of an act performed in the present day rather than a television show broadcast forty years ago.
Don’t expect too much Life of Brian or Holy Grail – this is a very Flying Circus and Meaning of Life intensive selection (possibly because they can be broken down into their composite sketches and reformed more readily than the former two works). While not all aspects of the Pythons’ comedy have aged well, they are nonetheless the once and future masters of sketch comedy, and even all these years later could give the vast majority of younger performers a run for their money.