Who’d have thought, forty years ago, we’d all be sitting here, doing Monty Python?” asks Eric Idle as the classic ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch begins. It’s a good question. For all their unrivalled brilliance and influence, the gang hadn’t performed together for three decades. Since then, fortunes have varied wildly, from Terry Gilliam’s auteur adventures to John Cleese’s rent-a-cameo dotage; surely Graham Chapman’s tragic death in 1989 had rendered all of them ex-Pythons?
Yet here they are, in the last show from July’s O2 Arena residency. Don’t expect anything groundbreaking; the Pythons have been vocal about their money-making motives in reuniting. Actually, they protest too much: in the entertaining (if brief) behind-the-scenes extras, they’re clearly having fun. However patchy and indulgent the results, there’s real warmth to the show, its blockbuster dimensions tinged with melancholy – especially when Chapman is seen or referred to. It’s hard to begrudge them a last hurrah, and quite moving come the climactic sing-a-long of ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’.
Eric Idle is the most conspicuous beneficiary of the tour; as chief songwriter his material holds things together, often to the detriment of pacing. While third-party assistance was inevitable, it’s a shame the regulars are so frequently absent. Set-changing longueurs are filled with archive material, yet these look disappointing at home, breaking the illusion of a live show.
When the Pythons are together, though, the magic is palpable. While much of the set list replicates the famous Hollywood Bowl gig, sketches are reordered to sometimes surprising effect. ‘Blackmail’ is astutely redressed as an X Factor-style live show, while the stream-of-consciousness that characterised the their work is retained by crashing familiar sketches together. Why, for example, does the Spanish Inquisition’s arsenal now include a fridge? While the big hitters are all here (lumberjacks, arguments, spam), the rarities gain the most from fresh exposure; the sketch about an accountant yearning to become a lion tamer might have been written yesterday. Other material has aged less admirably, as the decision to include Idle’s shockingly un-PC song ‘I Like Chinese’ demonstrates.
That said, part of the pleasure is how shambolic the show is. The Pythons lack the slickness of, say, fellow survivors the Rolling Stones, which creates a collegiate feel that combats the venue’s lack of intimacy. Corpsing is common: Cleese gets the giggles, Idle’s moustache falls off, Terry Jones reads off a cue card. Judicious ad-libbing breaks the material’s reputation as a holy comic litany; by the time Cleese and Michael Palin get to a certain pet shop, they take such liberties with their most famous moment that the mischievous, anarchic spirit explodes into life. It’s a welcome reminder that the Pythons haven’t yet expired.