MONTY PYTHON - “One Down, Five To Go” - London o2 Arena - 16th July 2014
Some thirty four years after their last formal live appearance - and it seems openly inspired by divorces and court cases - Monty Python take one last Pension Fund hurrah by offering a shameless and typical Greatest Skits show. But does anyone really begrudge them this? Does anyone really mind? Here, Monty Python, one dead, five not, give the world a final chance to experience something we never really did at the time, and manage to provide some degree of financial comfort in their old, often-divorced years. Cleese has had one of the most expensive divorces in history, and the Python court case over royalties for a musicial must hardly have been cheap. Where there's a hit, there's a writ. And with an average age of a staggering 73, Monty Python give us all one last chance to see them before comedy extinction.
Mostly of course, it is a nostalgia show – for a troupe that have created nothing of note in the past thirty one years, it is, as you would expect, a chance to experience for one last time what the audience (mostly) could never have experienced at the time, when they irregularly played the US and UK for money, and since their last UK appearances were at Drury Lane in 1974 – before the Sex Pistols had formed, and before many 40 year olds were born, in fact – there was a sense of finality, as if for one brief moment, Halley's Comedy Comet returned for the last time. And, with a combined age of around 370 – excluding the one very obviously very dead ex-Python in Graham Chapman – there's also a clear aging. Terry Jones reads off cue cards on occasion, and John Cleese frequently forgets his lines or goes off track for his own amusement – though all these are handled in a frank and mocking way that draws attention to the absurdity of the whole thing. And a Yorkshireman asks, “Who would've thought 40 years later, we'd still be doing Monty Python?”
There's a handful of new sketches in the two and a half hour show, which through unfamiliarity necessitate Palin to reminds his co-conspirators* when they get lost on three separate occasions that the audience “have homes to go to.” Maybe. But at £218.30 for the most expensive tickets, what's the rush? Especially as the moments where it all doesn't go to plan get easily the largest laughs of the evening. A casually tossed off three minute riff on Isaac Newton and Catflaps is received rapturously.
(*that bastard Cleese forgets everything)
At times, especially during the opening half hour, it seems we have paid somewhere between £27.50 and £218.30 to watch a very big television : when, 12 minutes in, a set change necessitates several minutes of an old sketch on the screen, I realise that I have been watching video & animation for longer than I have Monty Python. And whilst the choice of work is sometimes esoteric – the opening sketch is forgettable and relies on a sense of oh-My-God-It's-The-Pythons, as opposed to anything actually notable ; (after several minutes brain wracking it occurs to me it is the Llama sketch) and it's some time before the sense of novelty wears off and is replaced by genuine humour as opposed to muscle memory and rote repetition.
Luckily, the whole thing is arranged as not merely be a staid recital of well known cliches, but sketches are Frankensteined into a thematic whole – the Spanish Inquisition leads into “The Galaxy Song” which, through context sees the absurdity of some religious belief underlined ever further. Following that with a short video sequence that sees prominent scientists having a viciously physical 'think off' both underscores and deflates the point with the knowing self-awareness that sees them never get quite too big for their boots. The Pythons are always the first to burst their own balloons, and it's a skill that I probably have managed to bring into my own life.
There's also a twenty strong choreographed set of singers and dancers, who ably aid Eric Idle's irreverent vision – given the song heavy nature of the performance, it's clearly an Eric Idle production, and there's three new songs (a tedious “Nudge Nudge Wink Wink” effort that sounds like a very poor 1987 Run DMC B-side, a choreographed “Work Song” that openly mocks the absurdity of 'working until you die' – as if Idle were almost incensed at yet overjoyed at still having to do this in his 70's, and a couple of extra vulgar verses to “The Penis Song”), that make me think Idle might very happily take this and turn it into “Eric Idle Sings!” touring the world, and giving the Moscow Enormodome the Monty Python show they never had.
It also recalls the ancient days of now mostly-forgotten vaudeville, Victorian baudy camp and music hall, with frequent song-and-dance moments, placing the Pythons in a historical context that only now one can see of repressed middle class white privilege. Not all the material has aged well, a handful of ancient jokes about sexuality, cross dressing, and the song “I Like Chinese” seem – a half century on – somewhat illplaced now I am not 12 years old. Some expected classics do not appear, and some forgotten gems hove back into view. It's by no means lazy, but somewhat predictable.
Graham Chapman's absence is mostly poured over cleverly, though at certain moments it cannot be concealed, and his frequent video reprises are enthusiastically received. If we're honest, he was easily the funniest one of the lot,in the face of strict competition. Cleese has fine timing when allowed to, especially in a couple of well timed and nearly intimate jibes in this enormous aircraft hanger of comedy. In the meantime, Terry Gilliam takes on many of his roles with aplomb – though there is something quite saddening about the finest living film director there is pretending to vomit baked beans into a hat and then wearing them on his head mid show. But Chapman towers over the whole thing as the absent father figure.
Dignity is an overrated concept, and frequent, ruthless potshots at Cleese's divorce, Palin's travelogues, and other court cases keep the show somewhat contemporary, even though the naming of ancient 60's TV presenters alienates. The only other major mis-step the show makes is in the climax, where Graham Chapman's longest appearance singing “Christmas In Heaven” is cut short by a frankly underwhelming impersonator in a bad wig singing live. The audience were fully engaged at this point, willing Chapman a moment in the glory, instead of snatched moments and glances, and the thought of Chapman singing the song as a disembodied video entity as the rest of the troupe support him would have been a touching moment – until the point Anonymous Singing Gonk In Bad Wig turns up and takes over the vocals, and wrenches us all beyond the moment to an ugly reality where Chapman is usurped by a hired, and dreadful impersonator. Ugh. UGH. UGH.
(two minutes until spontaneous encore)
The final moment is... exactly what you think it is. It couldn't be anything else. Short of stripping them all naked and sticking them on crosses, it is the only way to end Monty Python. The penultimate caption rams it home. “Monty Python 1968-2014”. And so it is.
This is the end. A greatest hits, as it were, woven with a suspisciously Pythonesque flair and character. There is no way Python would not have disappointed someone, and with so much material to pick from, someone inevitably would have their favourite part missing. But looking at what there is, who would've ever thought they'd get to see any of this performed live by any of the creators, let alone all of the living ones? And thus, as the end of Python, it is a look back, a reminder, a fitting epitah to the lazy bastards. Ex-Pythons soon, and this is the last goodbye. This time next week Python will be extinct, a historical artifact. It seems churlish to deny us and them a chance to say farewell to history. Especially when executed so Pythonesquely.