The Messiah at The Other Palace

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With promotional material for The Messiah boldly announcing “three towering talents” playing a cast of thousands in “the funniest and most magical Nativity you will ever see”, the bar for my expectations was set very high.

Patrick Barlow’s play, has evolved over the 35 years since its first incarnation – it has been a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe, been shown on TV, adapted for radio and is now running at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest venture, The Other Palace, a venue with a mission to discover, develop and promote new musicals. The musical content in Barlow’s original script has been increased to give more weight to the character played by “the nation’s best loved soprano”, Lesley Garrett, who takes on the role of operatic diva Leonora Fflyte. As well as working on the revised script, Barlow also directs a piece that is clearly close to his heart.

The Messiah

The majority of the action concerns the nativity play within the play. Maurice Rose (Hugh Dennis) is a salesman turned playwright, bringing his version of the Nativity to London with his travelling theatre troupe. This “troupe” consists of one man, the downtrodden, claustrophobic and rather simple actor, Ronald Bream (John Marquez), and an opera singer. For reasons not made entirely clear, the character of Leonora Fflyte (Garrett) provides operatic interludes with excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, also joining the action as one of the three wise men.

The nativity play itself is performed as a series of disjointed scenes, with the characters of Rose and Bream frequently stepping out of these scenes to bicker and criticise each other. It’s clearly not a happy pairing, with Bream misunderstanding or making unauthorised changes to the script he is supposed to be delivering, while Rose laments the fool he is lumbered with, demonstrating aspirations way beyond his ability as a writer, director or actor.

In the role of Ronald Bream, John Marquez is clearly a strong comic actor with excellent timing and a real skill for physical comedy. He wins some early laughs with his mimed interpretation of the rather flowery language in the play’s early scenes. However, the overwhelming impression is that rather than playing the role of a bad adult actor, he comes across like an unwilling child in a school nativity play, both in his delivery and a lack of awareness of the stage environment that you would expect from an awkward 10 year old boy forced into a shepherd’s costume.

Unfortunately, Hugh Dennis is rather underwhelming. There is very little difference in his delivery, whether he is playing Maurice Rose the writer, the character of Joseph or even the angel Gabriel. The slightly stilted, “rabbit in the headlights” style may work when he’s playing a bad actor, but it is not convincing when he is interacting with Bream and “Mrs F” out of the confines of the nativity play, particularly as his character is very opinionated and his treatment of Bream verges on bullying at times. His asides to the audience, however, are well timed and received. He might be the villain of the piece in many ways, but people are still rooting for him.

Although the character of Leonora Fflyte has been built up to showcase Lesley Garrett’s talents, she still feels a little surplus to requirements. Her rendition of “Silent Night” is a highlight of the second act, providing a moment of reflection amidst the chaos that has previously ensued, but her singing at the end of the play is drowned by a loud backing track, lessening the impact of the big finale. There is not enough in the script for Garrett to give us a true diva personality, and she is left spending most of the play sitting in an ornate chair looking haughty.

The script of The Messiah has been reworked to bring it up to date. But the jokes are still largely predictable and repetitive, they even use the same physical gag at the start of both acts. The opening scene needs work and the laughs feel sparse until we meet Mary (played by Bream/Marquez) at the start of her relationship with Joseph (Rose/Dennis). This scene, including the annunciation of the birth of Jesus, portrays Mary and Joseph as a very modern couple who are struggling to make their marriage work. Sadly there’s nothing really original here, and I found myself expecting “Mary” to ask “Am I bovvered though?” Catherine Tate circa 2005 style.

A scene that aims to recreate the Roman census with the audience playing the part of disgruntled citizens is more effective and goes down very well – with the panto style participation raising energy levels as everybody boos, cheers and joins in with shouts of “What do you think we are, a statistic?”

This participation doesn’t work so well in the second act, in which Rose begins to see the error of his ways and we are invited to help him get over an awkward on-stage breakdown by clapping and cheering – much like you would save Tinkerbell in Peter Pan apparently. It really doesn’t really work and feels very sudden and rushed.

There is a lot of reliance on physical comedy, bordering on slapstick, with the hapless actors trying to navigate their set, climbing awkwardly onto rocks and chairs. The one time this does work very well is when the revolving stage is used to show the wise men travelling to visit the newborn baby Jesus. Watching actors falling off the set will never fail to amuse, and our three kings manage this with just the right level of terror and embarrassment.

Overall, to go back to the original publicity claims, this is indeed a talented trio, but they are let down by a script that is past its sell by date, relying on predictable jokes and scenes that go on a little too long to keep the audience’s attention. If you enjoy obvious slapstick comedy and want to see some star casting this Christmas, then The Messiah might be the show for you. If you want to see something truly funny and magical, there are better options out there in theatreland.

Review by Penny Walshe.

If you  like this review you might also like my review of Plaid Tidings, Cinderella at The Churchill Theatre and A Christmas Carol by LMTO.

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