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The Messiah

27 November 2018

Hallelujah !

The Messiah

by Patrick Barlow

Simon Friend and Birmingham Repertory Theatre at Richmond Theatre until 1st December, then on tour until 5th January

Review by Mark Aspen

Tea-towel headdresses, toy sheep, false beards. Doesn’t all this seem familiar from school nativity plays, memories that induce smiles or cringes, but so far away from the commercial onslaught that is twenty-first century’s pillage of Christmas. Between “Black Friday” (how did such a sinister-sounding name become associated with the season of goodwill?) and Advent, starting this Sunday, Richmond Theatre has launched our theatre Christmas season with The Messiah, which is a most unlikely candidate to bring out a true Christmas spirit … but it does!

Maurice Rose is suffering a mid-life crisis. Tired of the direction of his life, he has chucked in his job as a Hoover salesman in Debenhams, and the vacuum in his life is filled by his passion for the theatre. He had dabbled in am-dram, but has now decided to set up a theatre company. He is also fired up with another passion, a feeling that the world should be a better place. Filled with evangelical fervour, he has written a play with a message that he wants everyone to know. It is the story of Christmas, lifting the school nativity, he hopes, to an uplifting experience for adults too.

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Maurice has also sunk at lot of money in the project it seems, judging by the lavish set, a grand revolve with a dozen Doric columns. Lots of gold and royal blues, a drape backdrop of the hills around Bethlehem and a ground-row cut-out of the town itself complete the scenery, which unfortunately as yet has no stage hands to manipulate the winch handle (prepare for pun on a well-known oratorio). Oh, and there are not enough channels on Maurice’s lighting rig, so things have to be plugged and unplugged to get the spectacular lighting effects that he is aiming for. Designer Francis O’Connor and lighting designer Howard Hudson skilfully achieve not-quite-there-yet feel of the set within the set.

Fortunately for Maurice, he has recruited a loyal chum, Ronald Bream, to support his project. Ronald is the general factotum but also his fellow actor, Maurice having cast him in, er well, all the other parts not played by the writer-producer-director … and some of those where Maurice cannot be in two places at once. All this doubling and splitting of roles adds to the confusion of the simple and kind-hearted Ronald, who is neither quite up to the complexities of the stagecraft nor to the pretentiousness of Maurice’s script.

Hugh Dennis is very much at ease with the role of Maurice Rose, ready with the sardonic remark and quick put-down, whilst his ill at ease character wrestles with a self-doubt which bubbles through the surface of confidence. Dennis is best known as a comedy panel-game performer and the skills which he has honed there transfer usefully into this role.

Ronald first appears to be the stooge part, an allusion invoked by the Chaplin-esque portrayal by John Marquez. It’s there, the shock of curly hair, the too-tight jacket, the trousers arguing with the shoes, the splay feet. But Ronald is Maurice’s prop in both senses of the word, and the shift from stooge to sage (sage as wise man as well as Wise Man) is neatly effected by Marquez.

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Maurice is keen that his new show should not only be a success but have an up-market appeal. He has hit on an idea to achieve his aims by engaging, possibly at some expense, an opera singer to provide entr’actes to his nativity play in the shape of excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, the Christmas bits. But due to his budget constraints, he has settled on Mrs Leonora Fflyte, a diva whose career has recently been on the back-burner. Mrs F, as Ronald deferentially calls her, keeps a haughty eye on proceedings, willing to go along with Maurice’s directing of his “experimental” piece, until she gets the momentum up with a powerful burst of the oratorio. (Singing with “bit between her teeth”?)

Lesley Garrett, the renowned opera and crossover singer, gamely takes on the role of Leonora (“Lay-en-ora” she insists) Fflyte, a bold move for a Principal Soprano at the English National Opera. Some of the highlights of the production are when Garrett takes us briefly away from the comedy into the sublime moments of Händel’s masterpiece. “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people”, “Come unto Him, all ye that labour” and of course for Christmas “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given” were particularly beautiful and moving, alas only heard in tantalising snatches. But my, doesn’t it sound different when singing an oratorio a capella and without a chorus.

Without a chorus, except for Maurice and Ronald, who have a way to go before they reach ENO standard. Lesley Garrett has tutored Dennis and Marquez, but our two protagonists are not meant to be singers. And that is where the skill lies in this production, good actors and one brilliant singer playing poor actors and not so good singers. It is the play within the play conundrum, plus here we also have an oratorio within the play within the play. Are you following? It is Händel’s (real) Messiah, within Maurice Rose’s (fictitious) The Messiah, within Patrick Barlow’s (real) The Messiah.
Patrick Barlow is both writer and director of The Messiah and in both respects steers the play through the choppy channel between the fictitious bad players and the good real players. The first Act kicks off with the rehearsals for Maurice’s The Messiah, with worn visual gags, and a script of weak malapropisms (try “trauma” as “trousers”), spoonerisms (“unpart into” instead of “impart unto”), puns, and tongue twisters. (Although the monk who sat in his “cassock in Hassocks on a tussock in Sussex” is not bad as they go.) By the end of the Act things do liven up as the action spills into the auditorium and we get some audience participation. (Don’t worry nobody is pulled up on stage: that comes later in the Christmas season.) Dennis animates the audience to heckle Caesar Augustus’ tribune about the census. Some are even cued into part of script. (Was that a reference comparing Rome to the EU, with standing up and being counted?) By the interval one might feel short-changed, but then comes Act Two.

This is very much a play of two halves. In Act Two, all becomes clear that the feeble comedy of the first half is merely Maurice’s; and now things widen out. There is a priceless comic scene when the revolve turns as the Three Wise Men are on their travels and one, Ronald, can’t get on. This is a piece of well worked physical theatre involving all three actors, adroitly choreographed by Siân Williams, and involving acrobatic tumbling. Lesley Garrett has circus skills, surely unusual for an opera singer, and can even tightrope walk. Here those skills were invaluable.

Outside of the broad comedy, the scene showing the determination of the Wise Men is inspiring, the scene of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents horrifying, and the birth scene truly touching. The last is a full lecture in practical obstetrics!

Eventually, Ronald rebels against the overbearing and overambitious Maurice, calling him “a toad” and taunting him over his recent divorce. He tries to enlist Mrs F, but Maurice turns on him and chases him around the auditorium, while Mrs F attempts to hide her embarrassment with a quick aria from La bohème. However, it is this episode that is the catalyst for the denouement and the revelation of the true meaning of Christmas. Maurice is totally overcome emotionally by the enactment of the birth and falls into paroxysms of self-introspection, blaming his inner “toad”. Then he realises the message of hope and redemption in the Christmas story, and the two men are reconciled in a spirit of brotherly love.

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The final scene is the shepherds in the hills. One of the shepherds, Ronald, believes in angels, but has never seen one. Ironically, it is when he goes to count the sheep that Maurice sees the heavenly host, usefully including Mrs F singing Händel’s Hallelujah Chorus. He explains to Ronald that seeing one angel is like seeing “one bee”, whereas seeing the Christ child is like seeing “a whole summer”.

It was with some trepidation that I took up the invitation to review The Messiah. The promos looked as if it might be skating on the thin ice between being funny and being offensive. Blasphemy is a word that is no longer used (at least not in European usage), but treading on establish deeply held beliefs is not to be taken lightly. I need not have worried.

Patrick Barlow’s The Messiah can be enjoyed on many levels. It can be enjoyed for the sheer knockabout of the slapstick and the juvenile humour. It can be enjoyed for the human story, if you get past Act One. But most importantly, it can be enjoyed for its expression of the true Christmas message. Hugh Dennis’ father is The Right Reverend John Dennis, the former Bishop of St Edmunds: I wonder what he thinks?

Meanwhile, there’s the nostalgia for past nativity plays … and for tea-towel headdresses, toy sheep, false beards.

Mark Aspen
November 2018

Photography by Robert Day

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From → Drama, Opera, Reviews

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