Not the Messiah[author-post-rating] (4/5 stars)

Graham Chapman died of cancer in 1989, just shy of the celebrations for the twentieth anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In this one man show written by Tom Crawsaw, George Telfer plays Chapman at the end of his life, as he sits on his hospital bed looking back.

Not the Messiah owes its structure to Python. Alongside the man himself, Telfer plays some of Chapman’s more famous characters – the straight-laced army sergeant, the awkward policeman – who may at any point interrupt his speech with criticisms, heckles or to complain that it has all gotten just a bit too silly. In spite of this structural decision, to lay out all the events of Chapman’s life like a series of sketches, the content is frequently quite moving.

Though the Pythons hover in the wings, at the edges of anecdotes and sometimes at the other end of the phone, Telfer only brings John Cleese to the stage, and Not the Messiah is more about Chapman’s general life than just Python. Of course, the comedy collaboration that brought him fame and success quite naturally looms large – large enough to make this show pretty much fans-only. Telfer takes the audience through Chapman’s childhood and earliest memory, his time at medical school and desire to be a doctor, soon extinguished by his far less reasonable desire to be a comedian. Looming largest of all, alongside Python, is the other great love of Chapman’s life: David Sherlock, his partner of 22 years.

Telfer describes their meeting with a sudden reverence, straight-faced; his range is fantastic, taking in comedy, tragedy, silliness and severity all in the space of a few lines. He’s clearly capable of doing an out-and-out Chapman impression, but chooses not to, playing this central figure completely straight instead, which feels right. He also stays on top of tone and pace with ease, though does seem to struggle here and there with the horrible portakabin venue that Pleasance have put him in. It’s the basis for quite a nice joke about Chapman’s time performing at the Fringe, with Cambridge Footlights, but the first ten minutes feel a little like a station concourse, with latecomers breezing in, leaving the door open, rustling bags and so on. It’s hugely damaging to the mood, for Telfer and the audience alike, and hard to shake a suspicion that it knocks him off course just a little.

It can sometimes feel as though Crawsaw is over-using the Pythonic structure, that it is a kind of crutch, when the more naturalistic scenes are well-written enough that he clearly does not need it. Still, with an impressive performance from Telfer and some very funny lines, Not the Messiah is a hugely watchable hour about the too-short life of a fascinating man.

Not the Messiah can be seen at 13.00 at Pleasance Courtyard, every day until 24th August. For more information and tickets, visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.