Looking around the bustling Waterfront Hall, it’s slightly disconcerting to realise that my date for the show and I – in our mid-30s – are very nearly the youngest there.
There are one or two youngsters that might have been brought by parents/grandparents, but generally this an audience with a lower bracket of 40. Its perhaps indicative of Michael Palin’s later day career as a globe-trotting chronicler of adventure and people, but also of the aging of those who remember Monty Python from the first time round. Your reviewer was a mere eight years old when Palin went round the globe in 80 days for the BBC – Palin and Python have been constants in my life to date.
The stage is simply decorated – three oversize books are to the audience’s left, reminding us that the show is loosely based around the three volumes of diaries Palin has published covering 1969-1998. To the right of a large screen is what appears to be a wooden trolly loaded with physical books.
The screen bursts into life with a video/animation collage highlighting some of Palin’s onscreen exploits, all in a visual manner which pays nod to Terry Gilliam’s animations. Palin himself bounds on stage with the vitality of a man half his age; from the off he exudes a genuine warmth and infectious enthusiasm.
Considering his reputation as a traveller, there’s something fitting about the lecture-like setup. Slides are projected, showing Palin in various countries, and he gives us a bit of backstory behind the images. It’s a little disjointed at first, but during the course of the next 2 hours and 40 mins (plus interval), the images start to fit into a bigger picture.
A few years ago I caught John Cleese’s one man show, The Alimony Tour, in Edinburgh and inevitably comparisons are drawn. While Cleese also made use of photos and moving image clips, his presentation was rigidly scripted and read from an autocue, leaving the whole thing slightly flat. Palin in contrast appears to be working off the cuff using the onscreen images and excerpts from books as a memory jog. This is most apparent in the show’s running time, which exceeded the Waterfront’s advertised schedule by over half an hour.
Palin allows the memories to flow and organically steer proceedings, and one gets the impression that the show was modified slightly to suit the Belfast audience as an Irish/Northern Irish thread runs throughout the presentation. He’s been a regular visitor to the city since the Belfast Festival asked him to present his first ever one man show here in 1983, and fittingly tonight is the last date in the current tour. He talks favourably about an honorary doctorate awarded to him, his journeys along the Irish railways and his Irish Gallagher ancestors. It keeps the audience onside, though it feels like they were there already.
The journey moves from the origins of the diaries in the weeks before Monty Python’s inception in 1969, through Python tv and film, All You Need Is Cash, Ripping Yarns, a near-mythical charity It’s A Knock Out, film work including Brazil, American Friends and A Fish Called Wanda, before returning to the travelling of the 1990s. The highlight of the evening for me were the excerpts from the (recently republished) macabre children’s book Palin wrote with Terry Jones back in the 1970s – Bert Fegg’s Nasty Book for Boys and Girls – which left this reviewer in hysterics. Though, his performing the German version of the Lumberjack Song during the audience questions section comes a close second. I expect that no matter how well they thought they knew Palin’s career, there was something new there for most people.
Michael Palin succeeds in establishing the importance and use of the diary, and maintaining his reputation as the ‘nicest Python’. Belfast eagerly awaits his next visit. Robert J E Simpson, Gigging NI.com