By Adam Hope
DULOG’s shows at the Gala theatre attract the greatest hype of all their productions, and in years past have showcased the very best the group has to offer. I will avoid any suspense by confirming that Spamalot continues in this vein by being amongst the most enjoyable two and a half hours of theatre produced by Durham students.
From the opening strains of its first number, it is clear that Spamalot relies heavily on its ensemble, and what an ensemble it is! Throughout the show, its chorus wheeze, dance, and more often than not, die with absolute conviction. Several of them also pop up in meatier roles where the script allows; in particular, Sam Rietbergen and Luke Blacklock caught my eye, not least because of their turns as one of the Knights who say Ni and Sir Robin’s minstrel respectively. But these are only two examples among many, and from outrageous French accents to Asher Glinsman’s even more outrageous Yorkshire accent, the ensemble keeps fizzing and sparkling in a show that calls for the highest levels of fizz and sparkle.
The first number should also convince those who have seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the source material, that the musical will not just recreate scenes from the film with different actors. Several of the set-piece scenes do remain, of course, and despite being familiar with much of the audience, these scenes are still capable of raising laughs – a testament to both the Python’s comedic talents, as much as the cast’s delivery. But these are broken up by the musical numbers, which are almost universally funny and help turn the production from a mere film adaptation into a solid work in its own right.
Speaking of the musical numbers, these are well-spaced and managed so that they maintain their fervour for the entire show. That being said, no individual number in Act II can really compare to the twin exuberances of ‘Come With Me’ and ‘Knights of the Round Table’. The choreography and overall production value of these two numbers is of an incredibly high standard, which was reflected by the audience’s reaction to each. In contrast, Act I also features ‘Find Your Grail’, which has obviously been written to give a moral point to the production, something which sits uneasily with Monty Python’s irreverent humour.
Such is the nature of the show that the main cast blends with the chorus at the edges, with several of them taking on multiple roles at various points. What differentiates Arthur and his knights is that each one (besides the gloriously moustachioed Sir Bedevere, played by Sophie Forster) has a musical number to themselves. This reviewer’s favourites were Sir Lancelot’s (Arthur Lewis) very happy ‘His Name is Lancelot’, and Sir Robin (Alex Bromwich) singing Broadway’s praises, but each member of the chivalrous band gives a compelling performance. Even when not the focus of a scene, each actor kept absolutely in character; from Sir Bedevere acting ever so slightly feminine to Galahad’s preening, they were a believable group of comrades.
Charlie Keable’s Arthur and Rosie Weston’s Lady of the Lake act in partnership in many of the numbers, provoking many audience laughs in the process. They are an interesting contrast, as Keable comes toward the end of his time in student theatre and Weston is just beginning. This can sometimes be noticed, as Weston did seem to have some first-night nerves, which were all but gone by in Act II, as she really let the diva in her character loose. Keable’s programme biography states that he wishes to pursue theatre professionally after graduating, and tonight’s performance could not fail to catch a prospective production team’s eye.
It would be unjust not to mention the scenery, which was skilfully painted and enveloped the stage in medieval garb. It must have been tempting to find a way to dispense with the larger props – Trojan rabbits in particular – and so their inclusion, and to such a high standard too, speaks volumes about the show’s professionalism. The same can be said of the costumes, for which its creative team should be justly proud.
Not all was perfect, however. While Spamalot does use gags involving the crew several times, it was noticeable that the cast microphones were not handled as skillfully as they should be, and many of the special effects were out of sync with the action. Nevertheless, I would be willing to bet subsequent audiences will find these faults ironed out as first-night nerves fade and the crew become accustomed to the Gala, which after all is a very different space to the usual DST haunts.
Even with these comparatively minor flaws, Spamalot is likely the most ambitious student show to be produced this year, and if it falls short in some areas, this is not for want of trying. The cast and crew have pulled together an exhilarating show that is sure to leave audiences whistling ‘Always Look on The Bright Side of Life’ long after the curtain falls.
‘Spamalot’ will be performed at the Gala Theatre Durham from Tuesday, 24th of January to Saturday 28thJanuary at 19:30 (with two matinee performances on Wednesday and Saturday). Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Samuel Kirkman