Review: Spamalot, Theatre Royal Brighton, Friday December 16 until Saturday January 14

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IT’S HARD to know where to start. We thought Spamalot was going to be a reprise of old Monty Python gags – you know, the dead parrot, cross-dressing lumberjacks, funny walks – but we laughed more in this rip-roaring two-hour production than we’ve laughed all year. M was doubled up on the floor and the man behind fell off his seat.

The success of the Theatre Royal’s pre-Christmas offering is partly down to superlative acting and partly a scabrously witty script by Eric Idle and John Du Prez.. Oh, and don’t forget blistering lighting, slick set changes and endearing music with quite a bit of singing along involved.

Spamalot blasts the Python concept into the noughties. Like its predecessor it’s irreverent and anarchic but sharper, faster and laugh-a-second funny. Based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it’s a loose take on the legend of Camelot – with bells on.

Brilliant Marcus Brigstocke – yes, he of the razor-edged one-liners in The News Quiz and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue – stars as a hapless King Arthur instructed by God (Eric Idle in triple-x-sized digital glory) to seek out the Holy Grail. He trots through the production on his coconut horse, pursued with ruthless singlemindedness by the Lady of the Lake, Jodie Prenger. I remember Jodie’s triumph in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s quest to find a Nancy for his West End production of Oliver. At the time it was hard to see what elevated her above the other stellar performers. Now I know. She’s a consummate actress, full of expression and with that rare lit-from-the-inside presence which illuminates the live stage.

It’s hard to single out individuals in the company for special praise. Marcus Brigstocke played it straight with fine, uber-Shakespearean delivery. Todd Carty (for 12 years Mark Fowler in EastEnders) was a shatteringly expressive Patsy, humble servant to King Arthur and harbouring a bit of a chip about his lowly status. Robin Armstrong played Sir Bedevere with a natural comic edge and Graham MacDuff was a convincing Sir Lancelot, doing double turns as the French Taunter, Knight of Ni and Tim the Enchanter.

The ensemble of Tim Bonser, Rachel Knowles, Hannah Malekzad and Kit Orton moved with military precision clothed in showbizzy glamour.

High points? What to say, there were so many: Primary coloured sets of castles and forests which shifted with the sleek whirring of a Bond baddie’s rocket launcher; thumpety thump music which had every row of seats swaying precariously; the French taunters clad in dusky blue whose insults to the English king involved blowing wind into bugles and making the kind of gestures you usually see in bad-tempered traffic snarl-ups - King Arthur’s retort: “We’ll veto your treaty” drew cheers from the audience.

There’s a cart-load of plague victims who leap to their feet to sing He’s Not Dead Yet and a killer fluffy rabbit with blood dripping from his jaws. A complicated sword fight disarms the Black Knight (watchword, ‘You Shall Not Pass’) and finally sweeps his legs from under him too – clever that one.

And of course ensemble singing of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. That rang through my head all night.

We rose to our feet to howl our appreciation for curtain call after curtain call. If you can disarm a Knight and hi-jack a ticket, it’s worth risking the rack.