“You’re concerned about the logic.
‘I’m concerned that it looks f**king terrible.’”
No Naughty Bits continues the slightly odd trend at the Hampstead Theatre for new plays that are fictionalised versions of real events. Set in December 1975 after Monty Python’s Flying Circus had been broadcast on US television by ABC but in an edited and censored version that cut out the ‘naughty bits’. It follows the legal struggles of Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam as they fly out to New York to battle the network and defend their show, arguing in court for the freedom of artistic expression, against censorship and demonstrating how far apart senses of humour can be. Steve Thompson’s play is fictional, described as a ‘fantasy version’ of what happened though quite what that means, I am not entirely sure.
Harry Hadden-Paton is the one carrying the weight of the show on his shoulders here as Michael, the driving force behind the defence of their beloved television show even if, or maybe because of, the fact that it is not their best work, John Cleese having left the group and so something of the unique magical mixture gone forever. Hadden-Paton shows us the man before the fame really kicked in, still in disbelief that he’d come as far as he had but not yet successful enough to be able to afford the Christmas presents he wants to get his kids, and he does sterling work throughout, his rather plaintive naïveté in dealing with this new commercial world is most appealing. The main problem though is that too often the writing just isn’t funny enough, especially in the first half.
Neither Palin nor Gilliam, an opaque turn from Sam Alexander, are really allowed to be funny themselves outside of the Python gags, amusing as they are especially when trying to explain them to the Americans. And the other characters, whether real or imagined: Clive Rowe’s media lawyer, Charity Wakefield’s hippyish management/press agent, Issy van Randwyck’s miscast television executive serve more as devices than anything else. It is only with the arrival of Matthew Marsh’s rather liberal Judge Lasker does the play gain its one truly funny character and consequently his perfectly comic performance really does lift the second act.
Ed Hall’s directorial choices feel rather odd for the most part: the overarching conceit with its hints of Pythonesque silliness are only really utilised at the start and finish where it could have more usefully and amusingly been employed throughout; the courtroom scene is nearly ruined with a ton of needless hustle and bustle; and though we’re still in preview, there’s a hell of lot of work needed on the stage management side of things to ensure that clunky set changes are smoothed out and crucial cues are hit at exactly the right moment.
Ultimately, No Naughty Bits left me disappointed. The wigs and 70s costumes are fun and there are some amusing moments in there but the play just didn’t prove itself witty enough for me, nowhere near the ‘gloriously funny’ claimed on the promotional material. Nor does it really delve satisfyingly into the dramatic possibilities, mostly sidestepping the larger issues around the crumbling relationships of the Monty Python group, part of the problem in operating in this kind of fictionalised reality. Thompson can’t resist a final scene though that plugs everything back into the real world, akin to the end of a movie where it is explained what each character got up to in the future, fantasy turning into reality and thus leaving us questioning exactly what it is we have just seen.