29th September 2011
Somewhere in the middle of this play, in the court-room scene, the actors playing Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam start to read out from one of the Monty Python scripts to illustrate a point. The action in the script is brilliantly blended into the action in court with Matthew Marsh’s comedic judge interjecting into the sketch to make a truly surreal moment of pure comedic delight. Unfortunately, it also illustrates our problem with the play as a whole.
It is easy to forget just how seminal (or should we say ovarian) the work of Monty Python was in the history of TV comedy. Not many writers can lay claim to having spawned their own adjective, ie, pythonesque. Amongst the wealth of Python-related trivia on wikipedia we discovered that commercial space company SPACEX, launched a wheel of cheese into low earth orbit and returned it safely to the earth, claiming that it was a tribute to Monty Python. The term ‘spam’ to denote unsolicited emails derives from the famous ‘spam’ sketch. Never again can we listen to Sousa’s ‘Liberty Bell’ march without thinking of a giant animated foot descending from the heavens. You might even say that these are not just a bunch of naughty boys, they are the messiahs of comedy.
No wonder we had high expectations of ‘No Naughty Bits’. Surely all the elements were there for a mad-cap evening – comedy geniuses take on the giant corporations of the USA in court. But it turns out that this episode, which takes up a mere six pages in Michael Palin’s diaries, is little more than a sideshow to the main event. The action opens in 1975 with the Pythons’ US publicist trying to persuade Michael Palin to fly to America the week before Christmas to do battle with ABC, who have aired some shows with edits that not only omit ‘the naughty bits’, but make the pythons’ work both unintentionally nonsensical and unfunny.
Perhaps it is indicative of problems ahead with the play’s subject matter that only one of the pythons (Terry Gilliam) is even interested. By now they have gone their separate ways and Palin is more than a little reluctant. Which begs the question, why should we care? The stakes are just not high enough. Perhaps were just too many issues, with none of them explored in enough depth – are any subjects off-limits in comedy; is it OK to be offensive if the joke is funny enough; is censorship acceptable; should writers be allowed free rein at the licence-fee payer’s expense.
Harry Hadden-Patton gave an engaging performance as Palin but failed to capture his neurotic charm. Gilliam’s character was underwritten and it seemed as though wacky behaviour and costumes was being substituted for true eccentricity and dark obsessiveness. One of the more convincing performances, as ABC executive Howard Myers, is delivered by Joseph May, hot on the heels of his appearances in ‘Episodes’, a recent Anglo-American TV comedy which beautifully dissected the politics of TV (how ironic…)
For us, the only actor who transcended the writing was Matthew Marsh, bringing an almost surreal sang-froid to the proceedings as the federal judge who must decide who is right when neither party has done anything wrong.
But enough of this silliness, let’s hear what the Pythons had to say about Hampstead playwrights