John Cleese has been the disgruntled owner of a dead parrot, a lawyer, overconfident (and ultimately limbless) knight, clueless and belligerent hotelier, TV news reader, civil servant at the Ministry Of Silly Walks, zookeeper, cheese aficionado, Roman Centurion, and fruit-obsessed self-defence instructor.
So it’s easy to forget that, as the actual creator of these characters, the self-described “writer, actor, and tall person” is first and foremost a storyteller.
And, judging from the sold out opening night performance of his South African ‘Alimony Tour’, it’s clearly a role he relishes. Rather than offering on-stage recreations of his greatest hits, or delivering stand-up style comedy punchlines, a laid back and self-deprecating Cleese simply shares anecdotes from his personal and professional life.
Not that this is some ego trip. You see, as the 71 year old is quick to point out in the hilariously bitter opening salvo, he needs the money. His now ex-wife has been awarded a $20-million divorce settlement, prompting Cleese to take his show-and-tell session around the world.
And show and tell he certainly does. With the aid of photos, video clips, and a loosely structured chronological narrative, he covers – deep breath – his parents, childhood, teachers, accidental writing and performance career, Monty Python, ‘Fawlty Towers’, ‘A Fish Called Wanda’, and South African accents in roughly 90 minutes.
Along the way, we learn about growing up in the most boring village on the planet, organising a hitman for his mother, delivering offensive eulogies, hotel fire drills, Medieval swordplay, killing dogs, stuttering, what it means to be English, and death by steamroller.
For die-hard fans, the real highlights are recollections and clips of his lesser-known early work, but of course most time and attention is devoted to Python (especially his working relationship with the late Graham Chapman), Basil Fawlty (including a but-gusting description of the man who inspired the inept hotelier), and pushing the boundaries of bad taste in ‘A Fish Called Wanda’.
Cleese is warm and engaging throughout, wrapping up the show with a brief Q&A session that covers get-rich-quick schemes involving California’s divorce laws, the inanity of James Bond film titles (‘Never Die Again Tomorrow’), and silly walks pensioner style.
Although he can no longer lift his legs above his head – blame age, a hip replacement, and knee op – Cleese’s wit remains razor sharp, with ‘The Alimony Tour’ proving that good things can come from divorce.