Giving Spamalot the full Monty at Belfast's Grand Opera House
Rather than try to recreate the Pythons on Broadway, Neil Keery wants to ramp up the relentless musical theatre in his directing debut with the Ulster Operatic Company
Spamalot is the bickering three headed giant of the musical theatre world. Born of musical differences within the Monty Python team – none of them wanted to make a musical version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail except Eric Idle - they swiftly changed their minds, often in public, when the show opened on Broadway to tremendous, coffer-filling success. And now it has arrived in a sparkling, all-singing, all hoofing production at the Grand Opera House. I sat down with director, Neil Keery, to discuss the vagaries of man-eating rabbits, Knights who say 'Ni' and a coconut cavalry.
How closely does the musical follow the 1975 film?
'It’s essentially the same plot, which is really a very loose plot,' he says. 'It’s just a vessel to introduce all of these characters. But the Lady of the Lake is a big part of the show and she doesn’t appear at all in the film. She’s a parody of every female role in musical theatre. It’s a very odd musical in that while it has that Monty Python humour, it’s also one of the most 'musical theatre' musicals you’ll ever come across! There are in-gags and references to other musicals throughout.'
Spamalot might have come from Pythonesque source material but it is very much its own animal: a high kicking romp with one spangled tap shoe buried in Arthurian legend and the other firmly upstage, kicking in the footlights. It’s a fairly hefty production too.
'There are 37 in the cast,' Keery says. 'When we started off I thought it wasn’t going to be a huge chorus show but, in fact, the chorus are on a lot: they’re busy, there’s no sitting about! There are a lot of costume changes, a lot of in, out, shake it all about! And our cast are unreal. I’ve done a lot of directing and I’m a former member of Ulster Operatic Company, so I did shows with them years ago, but with this show and this cast every one of them is a big hitter. There’s so much charisma and so much to look at.'
Keery has been award nominated for the last two years and his latest production for the Newcastle Glee Singers Musical Society, The Drowsy Chaperone, received a best show nomination this year. This is his first show directing with the Ulster Operatic Company but he was previously a member until 2011.
'It’s kind of nice that it’s come full circle, and that the first thing that I’m directing in the Opera House is with them. It was a no brainer to pick me for this show!' he jokes.
'It is a funny script but you can’t go in trying to be the Pythons and you can’t go in attempting to recreate what they did on Broadway – you’re going to fail. But we have such a talented cast and they’ve been able to build those characters for themselves, so it has become its own thing now and there are a few local references in there, peppered throughout.
'We want to tease every inch of comedy we can out of it. And even if the songs ever let up, there’s never a sense of 'down time' – either in the lyrics or in the way it’s staged, there’s a joke. There’s always a joke.'
Terry Gilliam plays 'Patsy', King Arthur’s man-at-arms in the film, and I note he’s in the cast for the musical too. Does he actually get to do anything? Because all he does in The Holy Grail is bang two coconuts together (the Pythons famously couldn’t afford horses in the original film so they just pretended, the coconuts making up for the thrum of galloping hooves). I needn’t have worried.
'He sings two songs,' says Neil, excitedly, 'and one of them is 'Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life'. It’s a big tap number from the top of Act Two! He’s essentially on stage the entire time, because he’s with Arthur the whole time. He doesn’t have that many lines but it’s a completely crucial role in the show. It’s actually a surprisingly tap heavy show – it’s so musical theatre. We really ramp that up.'
What’s your anticipation of the level of audience participation? Do you encourage it?
'Yes, to a certain extent. Without giving too much away at the very end there’s a bit that absolutely requires audience participation. We actually bring the entire cast out on stage for that bit. It’s very funny.'
Keery is genuinely fired up for this show. It shows in his body language, in his relentless energy. How is he going to keep up this momentum? How is he going to stop the juggernaut from skidding out of control? He remains unfazed:
'One of the things about the show is that it sort of has to look haphazard but it can’t be! But equally we’ve had so much craic in rehearsals that it barely seems like a job. The way I work is always about trying stuff out – is it funny? And if it’s not funny we move on.
'The cast and the chorus are amazing. I’ve been impressed with them from the start and I continue to be impressed with them with every rehearsal, which is obviously so good. For a director it’s great that they’re doing things that I never really saw coming and that has happened organically. They continue to surprise me.'