The Messiah is a hilariously unpredictable exploration of the Nativity. Writer and Director Patrick Barlow succeeds in creating a piece of comedy that feels alive, feeding on and reacting to the actors’ individual personalities. Hugh Dennis commands the audience as the unsuccessful but proud Maurice Rose. Dennis, along with John Marquez, who plays the delightfully foolish actor Ronald Bream, work together effortlessly. Their obvious expertise for comedic timing and their artistic chemistry cannot be denied. A sleek energy is elegantly added by Lesley Garrett, the diva extraordinaire Mrs Leonora Fflyte, whose operatic additions give the play an unexpected, but welcome edge.
The story tells of the relationship of two unlikely friends: a realistic and honest take on the birth of Jesus this is not. Barlow wrote The Messiah in 1983, taking inspiration from his fellow actors. It’s not hard to imagine multiple brilliant minds being instrumental in its creation. Barlow wisely adapts the play to fit the actor, each adding their own signature twist, but ultimately conveys a message of love and acceptance.
Two ambitious and confident men travel to London to showcase their telling of the Nativity, bringing a novelty opera singer along for the ride. But this is a multi-layered comedy. Dennis and Marquez move swiftly in and out of Nativity dialogue, covering both Maurice and Ronald’s own life difficulties, sometimes through the absurdly funny ‘body movement’.
The audience is also asked to participate on multiple occasions and with extreme success. More often than not, audience involvement becomes a process of pulling teeth: you sink into your chair until it’s over, praying you won’t be picked to take part and thank God when you’re not. But worry not, on this occasion it is fun as we all stamp and jeer against Caesar’s consensus. The play flits between the contemporary and ancient, much to Maurice’s annoyance and Ronald’s excitement, with cries for a referendum being bellowed out from the audience. Who knew Brexit could be linked to the birth of Jesus Christ?
It’s fun stuff, and comically wise. The literal birth of Jesus is done with respect, they acknowledge that two men are perhaps not best suited to carry out a birth scene alone, and therefore Call the Midwife is cited as a guiding light with Garrett watching in silent approval.
Marquez is silly, endearing and witty. The stupidity of Ronald is carefully crafted – I didn’t think I’d ever see the Archangel Gabriel work with an Essex twang, but here we are – and we don’t feel sorry for his folly or end up hating Maurice’s harsh tone. It’s hard to feel animosity for someone curled up on the floor mid-breakdown.
Ultimately, while the story of Nativity may have been abandoned over time, there is something far more promising which shines through. There is raw human, and importantly, male emotion, something which is too often skimmed over. Indeed, Dennis conveys a convincing and raw burst of sorrow as Maurice covets forgiveness. This is what Christmas is about, never mind the costumes, the long nosed King or the knitted beard wise men. It all only adds to the marvel. If you wish to witness the twirling stage or the hilarity that comes with a prop lamb, well, you’ll have to see The Messiah for yourself. Although it may be “one tube stop away from the glittering West End”, the magic is all here.
The Messiah is playing The Other Palace until January 5. For more information and tickets, click here.