The Hayes Theatre is an intimate little venue that has provided the scene for some of Sydney’s most wonderfully inventive musical theatre productions, with directors and designers bringing fresh life to shows, some of which struggled in bigger venues. But rarely has the Hayes felt as intimate as it does in Richard Carroll’s exuberant production of Spamalot.
Cramer Cain as King Arthur, and the company of Spamalot. Photograph © John McRae
When Carroll directed his gloriously subversive, meta-theatrical, award-winning production of Calamity Jane, he put saloon tables on stage where patrons sat as the production unfurled around them. For Spamalot, Carroll and his designer Emma Vine have put banks of traverse seating on either side of the stage, reducing it to a tiny little performance space with the audience right on top of the action. The centre aisle through the auditorium is also very much in play.
It’s a clever move, with the audience easily coaxed into standing up, clapping and singing along at times. But despite the outsized commitment of the talented cast, there’s no getting around the fact that Spamalot is a lightweight show with some dated humour and a number of dull patches that refuse to take flight no matter how much energy, and contemporary asides you throw at them. But for all that, the production is still a lot of fun.
With a book and lyrics by former Python Eric Idle, who also wrote the music with John Du Prez, Spamalot is billed as “lovingly ripped off” from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Premiering on Broadway in 2005, it is essentially a series of comic sketches that mash the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table with a satire of the contemporary musical, delivered with lashings of Monty Python silliness. Musical theatre fans will spot numerous references to shows including Camelot, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, The Boy From Oz and many more, while the Lady of the Lake and Sir Galahad sing The Song That Goes Like This, a delicious spoof of soaring Broadway ballads by the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Josie Lane, Jane Watt, Blake Appelqvist, Aaron Tsindos and Marty Alix as the Knights of Ni. Photograph © John McRae
Python fans will relish the passing parade of characters from the film – the plague victim who isn’t dead yet, the Knights of Ni, the Black Knight who refuses to yield to King Arthur despite losing all his limbs, the killer rabbit, and the heavily accented, scathing French soldier (“I fart in your general direction”) among others. Idle also lifted the much-loved song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life from the later Python film Life of Brian.
The bloke sitting next to me clearly knew every line before it happened and savoured each moment of the show, laughing uproariously. But others will find that some of the duller scenes drag – the Knights of Ni, for example, and the laborious encounter between the father of the camp Prince Herbert and his guards who can’t get it through their heads that they mustn’t let Herbert (who only wants to sing) leave the tower.
Carroll injects various contemporary references from Liza on an E (a reference to Trevor Ashley’s show) to the same-sex marriage debate. He, Virginia Gay and cast member Rob Johnson have also reworked the lyrics to Star Song (which replaced the original Broadway number You Won’t Succeed on Broadway “if you don’t have any jews” in later productions). Referencing Kylie Minogue, Rhonda Burchmore, Rob Mills, Pauline Hanson and Shannon Noll – it’s a nifty bit of rewriting and very funny.
Carroll has assembled a small, excellent cast who give it their all, each playing their key character, and others besides. They all work so flat out, they hardly have time to take breath. Cramer Cain maintains a suitably serious, deadpan demeanour as the chisel-jawed King Arthur. Josie Lane raises the roof with powerhouse vocals as the glamorously clad Lady of the Lake. Her comic timing is perfect too and her rendition of Diva’s Lament (Whatever Happened To My Part) in the second act, is an absolute hoot and a highlight of the show.
Josie Lane as Lady of the Lake and Cramer Cain as King Arthur, with the company. Photograph © John McRae
Aaron Tsindos rocks it as the ripped Homicidally Brave Sir Lancelot and the sardonic French soldier, Blake Applelqvist is svelteness itself as The Dashingly Handsome Sir Galahad, singing well and dancing up a treat, and Marty Alix could power cities with his energy, charisma and cheeky sweetness as Sir Robin, The Not-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot. There’s lovely work too from Rob Johnson as Prince Herbert among many others, Bishanyia Vincent as King Arthur’s loyal servant Patsy, and Jane Watt as The Strangely Flatulent Sir Belvedere. Gender is a fluid thing in this production, and joyously so.
Emma Vine’s low-tech set has a charm of its own with its painted backdrops (one of which has an unpaid invoice attached), a cute little “round table” stage with a secret beneath, a tatty, fake Christmas tree for the shrubbery demanded by the Knights of Ni, a large wooden rabbit and a shopping trolley for the Lady of the Lake and Sir Galahad for The Song That Goes Like This, while the costumes have just the right comic touch.
Cameron Mitchell’s choreography is very funny, from the tap dance featuring tap shoes in hand to the Laker Girls moving like backup dancers in sparkly outfits, and he uses the tiny space available to him ingeniously.
But where Carroll’s approach to Calamity Jane explored the dated gender politics and queer subtext in inspired fashion, there’s little beneath the surface to explore in Spamalot. What’s more, Calamity Jane had better songs. So what he’s done with Spamalot is go for broke, play it to the nines, and hope that the infectious enthusiasm with which the cast perform will carry the audience through the show’s flat spots.
The sound (which is recorded) was out of balance on opening night with some of the dialogue and lyrics overwhelmed by the backing track – an issue when you want to hear exactly what is sung in a number like The Song That Goes Like This.
But despite this, and the slightness of the show itself, you cannot fault the high-powered energy and exuberance that Carroll and his cast bring to the production. It’s not perfect but it’s wonderfully silly and a hell of a lot of fun.
Spamalot plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until April 13