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Theatre review: No Naughty Bits 
29th-Sep-2011 10:40 pm
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Steve Thompson has been responsible for some of the more unfortunate episodes of Sherlock and Doctor Who, but I enjoyed his play Roaring Trade a couple of years ago so wasn't too put off booking his latest, No Naughty Bits at Hampstead. Like the last play in this space, it's a fictionalised version of true events: In 1975 the final, Cleese-free series of Monty Python's Flying Circus was broadcast in the States by ABC, as two 90-minute specials. In editing the show to incorporate ad breaks, they just so happened to cut out all the violent, scatological or sexual lines, and in the opinion of their US publicist Nancy Lewis Jones (Charity Wakefield) all of the jokes. In an attempt to stop the Pythons' reputation in the US being destroyed by these watered-down specials, Nancy recruits Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam to come to New York and take out an injunction preventing broadcast of the second episode.

I have no objection to Harry Hadden-Paton being gainfully employed, but casting someone who looks like John Cleese to play Michael Palin seems a bit perverse to me, especially as Sam Alexander does resemble Gilliam. Hadden-Paton does a good job of carrying most of the play but I can't say it wasn't a bit weird and distracting (especially when Palin has to do Cleese's Silly Walk.) Francis O'Connor's design references Gilliam's iconic cartoons and Edward Hall's direction sometimes hints at Python's surreal style but never quite consistently, and the play does lack identity as a result. Writing a play about much-loved comedy is always going to set expectations high where it comes to the jokes, but the biggest laughs do come from the partial retelling of a couple of Python sketches - seeing as these come from the obscure, unloved fourth series this should be a bit of a worry. The play's biggest original comic contribution comes from Matthew Marsh's lugubrious judge who lightens things up considerably in the second act. The court scenes make some interesting points about how trying to analyse what's funny instantly kills it, but ironically the play itself does suffer from just that. It's an amiable enough, entertaining couple of hours and I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing it, I don't quite get some of the extreme hatred for the show that I've seen in some quarters (though I guess it's had an effect - though it's not back to the tumbleweeds of a couple of years ago, the auditorium tonight was nowhere near the sellouts Ed Hall's been used to recently.) But for a play whose theme is comedy taking risks, No Naughty Bits itself feels rather tame.

No Naughty Bits by Steve Thompson is booking until the 15th of October at Hampstead Theatre.
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