Spamalot

The Queen's visit is making the headlines, but Phill Jupitus as King Arthur is far more entertaining

Who’d have thought, when Monty Python and the Holy Grail hit cinemas in 1975, that an absurdly accented Frenchman pledging to ‘fart in the general direction’ of a hapless King Arthur, or a mud-faced mute clapping invisible coconut shells together whilst pretending to be a horse, would still have audiences rolling in the aisles more than 35 years later?

But these and other classic moments get a rapturous response at the Grand Opera House, as the Tony Award-winning musical Spamalot finally opens in Belfast. Penned by former Python Eric Idle and composer John Du Prez, the ‘loving rip-off’ of the movie has taken Broadway and the West End by storm with its feel-good mix of vintage Python skits, newly created songs and fine comic performances.

The current, slightly scaled-down touring version stars Never Mind the Buzzcocks mainstay Phill Jupitus as Arthur, along with ex-EastEnder Todd Carty as his servant-cum-steed, the aptly named Patsy. I’d Do Anything winner Jodie Prenger is the buxom Lady of the Lake.

Jupitus, who sports black-rimmed spectacles and smokes a pipe at various points, seems to be channelling Eric Morecambe. When he and Carty are riffing together, however, it’s more like Laurel and Hardy.

And the spirit of Monty Python is alive throughout. Even before the curtain has lifted, an announcement instructs us to keep our mobile phones turned on, to talk and to eat sweets loudly. Then there’s an amusing cameo by Idle himself, on film, offering words of wisdom as a bad-tempered and foul-mouthed God. And, of course, we see the Trojan Rabbit, the decapitation of the Black Knight, the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’, and the evil Rabbit of Caerbannog.

After much singing, dancing and specially tailored asides (Frank Carson, Roy Walker and Ian Paisley get a mention), Arthur – and you should skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers – locates the Grail under a seat in Row D. Oddly, on opening night, it’s occupied not by a local Python die-hard, but by a petite French lady who can’t stop grinning. ‘I had prepared for a lot of things to happen in Belfast,’ chuckles Jupitus. ‘But that wasn’t one of them.’

As for the songs, the warmest reaction is reserved for ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, sung by Carty, even though this particular ditty is from another Python film, Life of Brian. There are also several parodies of the fare usually found in musicals, including ‘The Song That Goes Like This’, ‘The Diva’s Lament (Whatever Happened to My Part?)’ and ‘Twice in Every Show’.

With a well-cast ensemble, daft costumes, nifty staging and risqué – though just about family-friendly – humour, you don’t have to be a fan of Monty Python to laugh a lot at Spamalot. The Queen’s Irish visit may be the one that makes the history books, but Jupitus’s poker-faced, prancing King is far more entertaining.

Monty Python’s Spamalot runs at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, until May 21.