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sword and the dope reviewGoodman and Charles Productions’ The Sword and the Dope enters a crowded marketplace. Improbable as it may seem, the (loosely) historical, satirical, musical extravaganza has become theatrical dynamite, largely thanks to that West End juggernaut forever associated with wartime luncheon meat.

To creator and director Michael Horspool’s credit, this latest take on King Arthur, his knights and their eponymous curved table is packed with knowing winks to its predecessors, from Blackadder and Horrible Histories to pantomime, Carry On and variety, with a special place of adoring fandom reserved for Monty Python. Whether or not you can accept that this production is more raucous cover version than blindingly original comedy will dictate your enjoyment of it.

What is truly original is the varied collection of comic songs, which provide regular and at times much-needed boosts of energy. Some pastiches naturally invite comparison with Spamalot, such as the amusingly overwrought Lloyd Webber ballad, but there are pleasant surprises as well with wry takes on past eras’ excesses, although in most cases the sharp wit in the skewering of musical styles isn’t matched by the woollier lyrics.

In between the songs, the production unfortunately tends to meander, making you well aware of its two hour-plus running time. An over-reliance on crashing puns and extended gags is a hit-and-miss strategy, detracting from the narrative drive and enjoyably anarchic energy. It neither takes gloriously surreal flight nor completely delivers family-friendly cohesive storytelling.

More successful is the pop-culture savvy and contemporary paralleling, from an awkward encounter between warring politicians on a mind-numbing chat show to the requisite PR makeover. Further exploration of such satirical elements in place of heavy punch lines and obvious comic types (easy targets include camp, northern and…well, all of France) would make for a slicker evening.

Nevertheless, a game cast commit to their relatively broad roles, some with notable success. Will Silverside is a particular standout as a capricious Lady of the Lake, deadpan inventor and maudlin knight, able to squeeze joyful hilarity out of a slight hip swivel or brandished spoon, Frankie Mae is a scene-stealing kooky prophet and charismatic Roddy Walker a safe pair of hands as the show’s narrator.

There’s also a universally high standard of singing, with Joshua Coley particularly excelling as the self-involved lover, although this slickness doesn’t quite extend to other elements of the production. To cite Python once again, there is a thin line between the skilfully delivered illusion of chaos and a low-budget haphazardness that occasionally leaves the audience adrift.

However, given that this year’s Olivier Awards demonstrated original British musicals are in short supply, Horspool should be applauded for his intention and for providing a warm, genial evening’s entertainment.

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Reviewed 08/05/13/

By Marianka Swain

Apr 17th – May 12th 2013
The Courtyard Theatre, London, N1.

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