Theater Review: “Monty Python Live (Mostly)”, starring John Cleese

In 1969, one legend of the British television screen allowed another to blossom when Sir David Attenborough commissioned a sketch comedy programme revolving around five of the country’s best comedy writers: John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, and Terry Jones (though of course an animator named Terry Gilliam would soon join the group).

Forty-five years, three seasons on the BBC, and four hit movies later (I do include Something Completely Different); Monty Python is the biggest comedy group of all time and have done for comedy what the Beatles did for music. As I try to work in a Harry Potter connection for MuggleNet, it is interesting to note that John Cleese of course played Nearly Headless Nick in Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, while Terry Gilliam was J.K. Rowling’s  personal choice as to whom she would have direct the first Harry Potter film at the turn of the millennium.

I first encountered Python in 2009 or 2010 when my dad bought me the movie collection for Christmas. Not long after, I sat down and laughed through Holy Grail, Life of Brian, and Meaning of Life as well as sketches such as the ‘Parrot Sketch’ and my personal favourite, ‘The One with the Dirty Fork’.

I had to fight to get tickets for their penultimate show, and it cost a whopping £323.50 ($437.50) to buy two decent tickets due to the O2’s partnerships with the parasitic ticketing organisations of London. I think it was worth it.

The first sketch of the live show was a revival of a popular old Python sketch featuring Yorkshire men talking about how bad their lives were to increasingly obscene levels. The first half I found to be a little lacklustre, as the audience were still finding their feet as to how to react with the Pythons on stage. I’ve never been much of an admirer of Python when they approach material perhaps better suited to people who aren’t sitting next to their dad, which made some of the overlong songs (particularly ‘Every Sperm is Sacred’) rather arduous.

Some bits worked, and I liked the use of their archive from the BBC to provide a transition between sketches when favourites such as the silly Olympics and the philosopher’s football match played to applause.

However, some bits of it, like the ‘I Like Chinese’ song (which hasn’t aged well) and an Australian mickey-take scene, didn’t work, while I think I’d have preferred to see more from their archive than constant song and/or dance numbers; I especially felt that the whole night missed the presence of Holy Grail and Life of Brian. We were seated next to another father and son with the difference being his son was no older than ten or eleven, thus allowing you to see another side of the first half and its humour.

The second half was much better, though. I think it helped that almost immediately after the break we had the first corpse of the night; courtesy of Terry Jones as he and John Cleese sat on a sofa in drag debating why a penguin was sitting on the television. The audience fell into heaps of laughter for a few minutes as Terry and John laughed on stage. In the end, Cleese told the audience to ‘shush’ as he whispered Terry’s line to his friend. This helped to make everyone a bit more at ease, and I think after this the Pythons seemed to be having much more fun and were delightfully on top.

The second half boasted (as you might expect) the absolute best of the best of Monty Python as we returned to ‘Blackmail’ with Michael Palin (plus a cameo from Eddie Izzard), giggling as Academy Award-nominee Terry Gilliam dressed up as a Gumby to do flower arranging, the unexpected return of the Spanish Inquisition, and Stephen Hawking running over (professor) Brian Cox whilst singing ‘Galaxy Song’.

Where you really got your money back was in the last fifteen minutes or so when John Cleese interrupts some Spam-loving Vikings with the immortal line ‘Hello, I wish to register a complaint’ as he grasped a birdcage, which brought the house down. I’m going to trust that you have seen the ‘Parrot Sketch’, which was voted the second greatest comedy sketch of all time by Channel 4 in 2004. However, seeing John Cleese mess it up was even more hilarious. Cleese got to the line ‘THIS IS AN EX PARROT!’ in the end, which got Palin, who was struggling to keep a straight face, to utter the quip ‘Well, you got there in the end’, which led to Palin and Cleese performing the Cheese Shop scene as if they were just coming up with it on the spot, highlighting the fantastic on-stage chemistry between the two most recognisable Pythons. The moments of ab-lib genius seemed to make it as fun for the Pythons on stage as it did for us, lightening up forty-year-old sketches that could otherwise have been gunned down. Needless to say, there was a full standing ovation for the final bow with Eric Idle strumming up the Pythons’ most famous and popular song.

The cast were funny (though I did feel for the guy who had to replace Graham Chapman in signing ‘Christmas in Heaven’), while the set design was lavishly Gilliam with the nostalgic animations and modernised scenes linking seamlessly. Though it’s too late to watch it live like I did, GOLD on UK TV are showing an uncut, uncensored version Tuesday at 9 p.m. GMT, and the event will be released on DVD later this year.

In the end, Monty Python died the way it lived with a group of Oxbridge graduates doing silly things to raucous applause. Critics have lambasted them for not introducing more material, but I don’t think that was what the crowd wanted. What we wanted was the chance to see the greatest comedy troop of all time belt out their greatest hits in the flesh – and that was what we got. Though the birth of Monty Python was long before mine, I will always remember being lucky enough to be there for its (mostly live) funeral. I will leave you to hum the Python theme to yourself as I leave you the last frames of the performance…

Graham Chapman 1941-1989
Monty Python 1969-2014
Piss off!

Review by actor Rohan Gotobed, who portrayed young Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films