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Those crazy Brits, the Monty Python team, have been at it again, taking over the venerable old Royal Albert Hall in London for a subversive, funny and irreverent musical performance based on their movie, The Life of Brian – and they have the po faced cheek to call it an oratorio! Andrew L. Urban reports on the eve of the concert’s release on Australian screens (July 31, selected cinemas).

Narrated by Mrs Betty Palin (yes, Michael in a frock), this sumptuously produced spoof was filmed at The Royal Albert Hall (October 2009, anniversary of 40 years of Pythonism); the RAH may be grand, but the jokes and the inspired wickedness are pure Monty Python, and the concert hall is crammed full of devoted fans, for whom every moment is to treasure. All of this translates on the screen, lifting our spirits with the expectation of wild amusement at the expense of dearly held Christian tradition. But it’s not and never was intended to be nasty; it’s rather sweetly innocent in fact, which explains its success and longevity. It’s the English sense of humour, which has an echo (rarely exercised but real) in Australian humour which likes to make fun of the tall and mighty.

"musically accomplished stuff"

The oratorio retells the tragic tale of Mandy (Rosalind Plowright, mezzo), impregnated by a Roman soldier, giving birth to Brian (William Ferguson, tenor), a reluctant revolutionary of the People's Front of Judea who falls in love with Judith (Shannon Mercer, soprano), gets mistaken for a Messiah and is arrested by the Romans and sentenced to be crucified.

Part One, Apocalypso, begins with rousing horns and the heavenly choir. And we instantly realise that for all the comedy, this is musically accomplished stuff, peppered with faintly recognisable musical phrases . . . perhaps Handel? Mozart? Bob Dylan?

The sight of the entire BBC Symphony and its massive choir, all in their formal gear as are the soloists, performing such subversive work on this splendid, formal stage is a sheer delight.

"as dry and bizarre as you’d expect"

Betty Palin’s script is as dry and bizarre as you’d expect, juxtaposing the sublime with the ridiculous. There are musical surprises and a recognisable comic air throughout the concert. My only drather is that I’d rather have had the DVD with the lyrics as subtitles, to be able to fully appreciate their wit and wonderful silliness. By the time the finale comes around and Eric Idle launches into Always Look on the Bright Side of Life – the Python anthem – the audience is in seventh heaven, singing and waving their candle-light batons.

It’s not for everyone: bigots and bores beware.

Published July 22, 2010

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