Spamalot Marches on Belfast

Phill Jupitus and Todd Carty love the city - and the city will love Eric Idle's hilarious musical

Phill Jupitus looks tired, but he’s hyped. He’s just finished playing King Arthur in Spamalot – the stage adaptation of Monty Python’s 1975 absurdist film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail – at Manchester’s Palace Theatre, and the adrenaline is pumping. There’s only one question to ask: ‘What now?’

‘I’m not drinking at all during this tour,’ says Jupitus earnestly, running his fingers through his hair as beads of sweat form on his forehead. ‘You’re always on a high after a show – especially a show like this – and the temptation is to keep it going. But that’s destructive. I’m staying off the booze for the whole tour, but it will be difficult in Belfast.’

Jupitus is looking forward to playing and singing for audiences in the city when Spamalot comes to the Grand Opera House from May 16. He knows Belfast well - too well for his liver, it seems.

He has played several gigs there as a performance poet, stand up comedian and DJ, and knows where the beer flows. But he’ll resist the temptation until the final night of the tour, when the Crown Bar will be his first port of call. ‘Great bar,’ he recalls wistfully.

Spamalot is hilarious, and not just for the dad's with their DVD collections. At the Palace Theatre there are groups of young students, giddy foreigners and new-found Python disciples, and, of course, the odd nutcase. During the matinee performance one middle-aged fan, who appears to be there with his elderly parents, gallops through the foyer clopping invisible coconut shells. As the old cliché goes (but this time, it’s true) there really is something for everyone to enjoy in this madcap musical.

There are the classic Python skits – involving the Knights Who Say Ni, foul-mouthed French castle guards and a killer rabbit, amongst other things – but writer and lyricist Eric Idle and composer John de Pruz have also conjured up a plethora of new characters, songs and sketches that have the house in raptures.

A YMCA-type song and dance routine – in which Arthur’s most aggressive henchman sashays, nay gallops his way out of the closet – is genuinely side-splitting stuff. If funny voices, silly walks and Phill Jupitus singing at full pelt are what you're after, Spamalot has it all. And it brings Monty Python bang up to date.

Each show is tailored to the host city, and Jupitus writes his own localised introduction to get the audience on side. So, in Manchester he enters stage left with a long drawn out ‘Alrrrright?’, and there are jokes about Carlos Tevez and Bez from the Happy Mondays. It doesn’t take a wizard in drag to figure out what greeting Jupitus will adopt in Belfast, but he remains tight-lipped about any changes to the script.

‘It’s a creative process – Eric and John have written a fantastic, funny musical that Python fans will love – but I get to write my own parts to fit with whatever city we’re playing,’ says Jupitus. ‘I have an idea of what I’ll do in Belfast.’

The cast also features Todd Carty (of Eastenders and Dancing On Ice fame), and I’d Do Anything winner, Jodie Prenger, who unfortunately missed the Manchester performance due to a knee injury. Carty plays Jupitus’s dumb sidekick, the aptly named Patsy, and sidles up for his post-show interview in a very cool trilby hat.

‘I’m really looking forward to playing Belfast,’ he says, ‘because I have family in Ireland. But I enjoy playing Patsy anywhere. Singing and dancing, it’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? It’s what we actors love to do. And I think I’m a bit better at this than ice-skating,’ he quips. Very true – he doesn’t lose his footing once during the show.

After Spamalot had completed its first run of 1,500 performances on Broadway, the production had grossed an astonishing £175m. Granted, much of that success was due to Python's enduring popularity. But it is Idle's new songs that have helped establish Spamalot as a modern musical with legs.

Idle's credentials as a talented comic songwriter were established with The Life of Brian's pitch-perfect show stopper 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' (the rest of the Python's turned to Idle when they couldn't come up with a decent denouement). He could have rested on his laurels after writing that song, but you can be sure the other Python's are thankful that he didn't.

There is little point in attempting to explain the skewed plot of Spamalot, but some of the song titles give a flavour of what to expect. 'The Song That Goes Like This', 'Twice In Every Show' and 'The Diva's Lament (Whatever Happened to My Part?)' are typically tongue-in-cheek, but they are also very well written songs, expertly performed. Idle is not precious with his compositions - stand in leading lady, Jessica Martin (playing the Lady of the Lake) warbles and wails like a gnomic Mariah Carey during the latter tune.

And what about Jupitus, how does he perform? He's not the greatest mover (yes, he does dance), nor is he the best singer. But he remains in tune throughout, and never misses a comedy beat. And while a nice cup of tea and a dander around town is how he likes to finish performances, however, his pre-show ritual is bit more rock-and-roll.

'I listen to The Clash,' Jupitus says seriously, now much more relaxed and thoughtful. 'Before every show. Because, in a way, Spamalot is as punk a musical as you're ever likely to see. Eric Idle and John de Pruz are being subversive with this show. And if I'm going to sing, I may as well get in the mood. Nothing like a bit of 'London Calling' to get the blood flowing.'

Spamalot runs in the Grand Opera House from May 16-21. Book your tickets via What's On.