AU ABROAD

Comedy Review: Monty Python LIVE (Mostly) - O2 Arena, London (Performances to July 20th - Screens in Cinemas August 6th)

This week, the surviving members of iconic British Comedy troupe Monty Python bring their run of "reunion" shows in London to an end. Their first performances under the Python banner since 1980's infamous Hollywood Bowl gig, their return to the stage was met with as much anticipation as it was trepidation - aren't they too old now? Isn't it best to keep the magic as it was? Might it spoil our memories? Is it really Python without Graham Chapman?

Of course, all these hesitant expectations were valid, but the fact has been that the Python name has been well and truly active ever since they took their final bow in 1980. From the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Broadway musical Spamalot to the opera He's Not The Messiah, He's a Very Naughty Boy, which Eric Idle brought to Australia's Sydney Opera House some years ago, the former collaborators have continued to explore new ways to tell their much loved tales. And on the stage in particular, this has done them very well.

But the success of Spamalot has also had an unexpected byproduct: the Python's losing significant amounts of money in a court battle over royalties from the production, set off by a Holy Grail producer in 2012. At the end of this, they agreed on a way to recoup the losses: they got the band back together. From the initial much-hyped press conference, they openly admitted it was about the money. To say they were going into it for the right reasons was far from the truth and even in the weeks leading up to the production, interviews with member Terry Gilliam suggested they still weren't terribly thrilled with the whole thing, saying it felt forced and unnecessary. Their time had passed.

Fast forward to July 1st, the production premieres. Five shows are had, general reaction seems surprisingly positive. Critics reviews seem mixed, but that was to be expected regardless of the brilliance or lack thereof. After a break, thanks to planned dates from Robbie Williams at the 15,000 capacity O2 Arena in London, the Pythons returned for five final shows on Tuesday night - and it was this first performance I attended. So let's cut to the chase. How was it?

Though these five aged comedians (and let's not forget Carol Cleveland, who also appears in the show) continue to openly admit they're only doing it for the money, even as part of the show, you can tell that they are enjoying revisiting these classic sketches. As they try to make each other laugh through classic routines like "Spam", "The Spanish Inquisition", "The Exploding Penguin", "Argument Clinic" and "The Dead Parrot", there is no doubt that these much older, probably not wiser comedians are enjoying collaborating with the rest of the Python gang more than they'd ever let on. And with 15,000 people laughing along, it should be of little surprise. It's an intoxicating experience and they treat the routines with an apt sense of respect.

But what did surprise me, even in spite of their other productions and the fact they had long time collaborators like John du Prez (Musical Director, conducting a full orchestra) and Hazel Pethig (Costume Designer) involved, was that there was no expense spared in making the show as strong a production as possible. In fact, the bill ran about $8.2 million. Though Cleese may not be able to do the Silly Walk anymore, a team of dancers made sure the classic sketch was represented. Set changes were done to precision and from giant penises blowing bubbles over the crowd (not quite Rammstein, but not far off), to an aerial stunt that I won't spoil here and a moment during the "Galaxy Song" that was rather extraordinary, you very much get a world-class production.

The show was designed much like a sketch comedy revue would be. The stage had all the elements of the old vaudeville - from the sea shell lights that lined the set, to the red velvet curtain that would introduce new segments. Their most iconic skits were done, essentially, word for word, but plenty of others were given new life on the stage, with contemporary input, new transitions and new music (see "Sit on my Face" for a particular update). "High Court Judges", something well known from the Hollywood Bowl show, was a particular chance for the group to add in quips about recent court cases, from Cleese's many marriages to the Spamalot case that brought them to the O2. We also saw the classic "Blackmail", with surprise guest Warwick Davis.

New animations from Gilliam littered the show, but primarily we saw old footage during changeovers. Most we knew well, of some we had a distant memory. And when Chapman appeared on the screen, remarking how silly this all was, he got the biggest cheer of all. Though it must be said that the laughs were perhaps strongest when they were dressed up as women. Just like old time, eh? And it all served as a reminder that this is more than just a show, or a reunion. It's a celebration of the quite remarkable success this ridiculous comedy troupe achieved, with their silly sketches that challenged the norms of comedy and what was "PC", influencing generations to come. Often while dressed up as women.

Monty Python LIVE (Mostly): One Down, Five to Go, as the show was titled in full, was often hilarious, always funny and as nostalgic as you get. It gave the Pythons and the public one last chance to celebrate their legacy, and it did this in the grandest way, on the biggest stage possible. I doubt true fans would have been disappointed with the experience, though those expecting something new may have not felt the same. The night ended with, as tradition implies, an "Always Look on the Brightside of Life" singalong before the screen rang out "Monty Python, 1969 - 2014" and we were told, in a polite, Pythonesque way, to "Piss Off".

As they approach closing night, don't expect this to be a John Farnham "first farewell of many" stunt. As Michael Jackson once said, this is it. For their final performance this Sunday, the Pythons have found a way to make the most amount of money possible from the shows, without having to ever tour it again (indeed, original reports suggested they would do a short world tour of the reunion, which they are no longer doing).

The final ever performance of Monty Python will be streamed live on satellite TV and in cinemas in the UK, before international dates in the weeks to follow. No doubt a DVD release and maybe another CD will come in the months and years after, and potentially another entry in Idle's The Greedy Bastard Diaries?

Monty Python LIVE continues at the O2 Arena in London until this Sunday, July 20th. For tickets and more details, head to http://www.montypythonlive.com/. For details about where you can see the final performance via Satellite in Australia, head to: http://smarturl.it/montypythonlive. Though streamed live in the UK, due to the time difference and other technical issues, we will be seeing it here on August 6th.

The reviewer attended the performance on July 15th.