For five men returning to the stage in their 70s, the question on opening night was obvious: Have their powers of recall survived the four intervening decades? This being Monty Python, the answer should have been obvious—their memories are no more; their line retention has ceased to be.
As the Pythons gallivanted through a host of classic sketches in front of an adoring crowd, it seemed the audience could remember the lines rather more clearly than the men on stage could. Toward the end of the show John Cleese brought the biggest cheer of the night by walking on stage clutching a cage and an inanimate bird. “I wish to register a complaint…” he bellowed. Everyone inside the cavernous O2 arena in East London knew exactly what his complaint would be: This was a Dead Parrot.
Halfway through the sketch, which had been beautifully remixed with the Cheese Shop skit, Cleese began to snigger. Not for the first time in the night, he was struggling to keep it together. This time he wasn’t just corpsing, he’d forgotten his lines altogether. He and Michael Palin leaned on the shop counter that separated them, and Palin whispered the missing words.
It was endearing to see the old friends laughing together again, and the crowd certainly didn’t care. The first run of tickets for the opening night sold out in 43 seconds. The people who had gathered for the first live show since the Hollywood Bowl in 1980 had more than a passing interest in Monty Python. The place was overflowing with fanboys, most of whom got everything they were hoping for, apart from the Ministry of Silly Walks, which in fairness appeared all but impossible to perform when Cleese was in his 30s.
The crowd was predominantly middle-aged, but there were also a huge number of dads with their teenage sons, including George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, who told The Daily Beast it was his 13-year-old boy who had dragged him along.
One can only imagine the awkward silence between several thousand fathers and sons when a pair of candy-striped pink-and-white penis-shaped cannons rolled on stage and exploded bubbles all over the front row. Amid the Python’s greatest hits, it’s easy to forget quite how many sex jokes always ran through their shows.
It’s probably unfair to say an exuberance that was welcomed when the comedians were in their 20s feels a bit grubby now, but it did. There was something jarring about an updated version of the Bruces’ Philosophers Song sketch: “You hear about the Pommie bastards who got their sleeping pills mixed up with their Viagra? They ended up with 40 wanks.”
The 21st-century updates (“You don’t know whether to titter or Twitter”) were thankfully few and far between, although a cameo from Stephen Fry was exquisitely realized in one scene. Asked why he was being blackmailed, he explained that it was all a misunderstanding. He had been involved in an accident while he “was lightly hovering.” With an admirably straight face, Fry explained that he had fallen and “rectally ingested a lightbulb.”
Most of the show, however, was dedicated to joyfully reliving the classics. First up was the famous Four Yorkshiremen sketch, in which middle-aged men compete to tell the most miserable of hard-luck stories from their upbringing. Palin, in particular, was in dazzling form. The opening line had been updated for the farewell tour: “Who’d have thought, 40 years ago, we’d be sitting here doing Monty Python.”
The show was full of those little touches, some self-deprecating, some self-reverential, and some that were a little too close to the bone. After several clunky link sequences, one gap between sketches simply comprised some messages projected onto the big screen above the stage: “Sorry these captions are a bit boring, we’re changing the set,” it read. “It’s not easy doing these kind of shows. This one cost a fortune. Sorry.”
The tickets cost a fortune, too—there were still quite a few on sale for around $190 on Tuesday afternoon. That’s a lot of money to watch Terry Jones read his lines off a cue card and see some of the original television sketches being beamed onto a big screen. And yet, by the end of the night, it felt churlish to complain. Eric Idle picked up a guitar and began to strum away with 20,000 accompanying voices:
When you're chewin’ on life’s gristle, don’t grumble give a whistle
And this’l help things turn out for the best
And always look on the bright side of life
Always look on the light side of life…