DVD REVIEW – 'John Cleese Live! - The Alimony Tour'

Posted on: 25 November 2011 by Alexander Hay

He ought to be semi-retired. He ought to have loads of money. Instead he got divorced, taken to the cleaners and has been forced on tour! Which is good news for his career, one has to suppose...

Readers! Insert your own 'dead parrot' comment here!What to do when you're in your 70s, divorced and your pension has taken an almighty hit? Normally, it would be a case of turning off the heating, knitting a woolly hat and buying budget cat food.

In John Cleese's case, however, financial hardship has an altogether different meaning. Having been divorced by his wife of 16 years, the septuagenarian comedian found himself owing $20 million in alimony. Just to put that in context, this is a lot of budget cat food.

Forcing himself back on the road is his only solution, and so John Cleese Live! - The Alimony Tour is the end result. Recorded before a live audience, it's a mixed bag. Cleese hasn't been on-stage for a while, and it shows. His performance is at times wooden and his delivery somewhat halting, his voice occasionally crackly. Performing live is a demanding business, so the way Cleese keeps nipping off stage right while archive footage throughout his career is shown hints he's a bit out of shape.

Once past the inevitable rendition of 'The Liberty Bell' (yes, THAT theme), the show itself is something of a shaggy dog, moving from autobiographical ramble to gushing luvvie name dropping (often to cringe-making effect), via recollections and, as said, clips from Cleese's back catalogue, dating all the way back to his earliest television appearances with the Two Ronnies and one Marty Feldman.

The end result is at times cosy, inoffensive and predictable, like a clips homage put on during BBC 2's early evening schedule, in-between episodes of Dad's Army. It does stand out with some of the rarer archive footage however, in particular, the skits that Cleese and Marty Feldman used to perform together with great effect.

Then there are the interesting little revelations that creep out from time to time, like how Monty Python was only made because it was at a time when you could still make television cheaply and without having to worry about budgets or ratings or nervous managers. In these cases, it's like interviewing the man one-to-one, but while revealing, it isn't necessarily funny.

Indeed, the jokes don't seem very spontaneous and are often rather laboured or predictable. There are some good one liners from time to time, but by definition, you'd expect a comedian to do be able to manage this.

Sometimes, as the overly telegraphed barbed comments towards his now ex-wife come out, it's hard to wonder if he's telling a joke or being the butt of it, his stop-start delivery making it uncertain if he's in on the gag.

Compare and contrast with 1968's How to Irritate People (produced by David Frost, who Cleese impersonates - it must be said - with great accuracy) which has much the same format, featuring Cleese talking to the audience (or rather the camera) with much more ease and with a zest and mania to the proceedings not present in his current show.

It is unfair, of course to compare a 29 year old Cleese with the one that's with us 43 years later. But the main difference is that Cleese knew what he was doing there, he was focused and he knew he wanted to be there. Old warhorses like Ken Dodd or comedy racist Don 'Mr Potato Head' Rickles can carry on ad infinitum because they work the stage regularly. It's a different state of affairs for Cleese, however, who admits he's more at home as a television and cinematic performer.

Put simply, once Cleese wanted to be on stage. Now he doesn't really know if he does or doesn't, and it shows.

Still, you can't help but be reminded, as Cleese lopes along, Americanisms slipping through his speech, his performance showing rare flickers of the old electricity, of what he used to be like. The point is, it's hard to see where the performance ends and the man begins or vice versa. This isn't deliberate, but more a sign of someone having to relearn their craft very quickly, like those 80s rock musicians who have to take guitar lessons when the inevitable reunion tour comes along. In that sense, it's an engaging show, but probably not for the reasons John Cleese intended. Still, it will hopefully keep him off the cat food for some time to come.

John Cleese Live! - The Alimony Tour will be out on DVD and Blu Ray on 21/11/2011 and will be available from Amazon at £11.99

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Alexander Hay

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