Eileen Caiger Gray reviews The Messiah at Sheffield Lyceum (November 5th 2018)
In the run-up to Christmas 2018 here comes The Messiah, bringing some moving moments to an evening filled with laughter, groans and theatrical mayhem.
The writer, and director of this production, Patrick Barlow, originally wowed the Edinburgh Fringe with the play in 1983. It was onstage again in 2000, and now, eighteen years on, revamped and with the characters re-christened, it’s back again. With its slapstick tumbles, malfunctioning props, mangled acting and bungled lines, the piece is reminiscent of one of those plays that Ernie Wise wrote for him and Eric to ineptly enact as they drew some poor, put upon and taken aback star of the day into the fray. As this nativity story haltingly unfolds, Frank Spencer’s am-dram days might also spring to mind. The terrible puns and wordplays, the frequent malapropisms and mispronunciations can be seen coming from a mile off, while the old, old joke of repeated false starts to speeches as entrances are made amidst the blare of epic film music that simply fails to stop is used a good half dozen times! People decades on, though, from the days of the Goons, Kenneth Horne, Pythons, Ronnies et al, still laugh heartily. Updated references and anachronisms have been added, and extra material comes courtesy of John Ramm, Jude Kelly and Julian Hough.
Actor/comedian Hugh Dennis (son of an Anglican bishop into the bargain) and John Marquez (bungling PC Penhale in Doc Martin) bring great warmth to their comedy roles. Dennis is vain, self-important, self-confident yet incompetent actor Maurice Rose of the Maurice Rose Players; Marquez is his player Ronald Bream, a dishevelled, diffident dim-wit who looks for all the world like a lost and bewildered Charlie Chaplin at the outset. The two men, their characters worked out in workshops by the actors prior to rehearsals, bungle their way inelegantly and ineloquently through scenes from the Christmas story, interrupting themselves and each other at every stilted, slapstick turn. But as the play proceeds in its fits, starts, bumps and jumps, the two develop as people (sort of), finally coming to care for and understand one another more fully, while some of the nativity scenes, too, provide touching, serious moments.
Drawn into the chaos is special guest opera singer the aloof, set apart Mrs Leonora Fflyte (- two ‘f’s, of course), played by Lesley Garrett in her comedy play debut, obliging with classy, stylish Messiah singing and also donning robes and comedy beard to be the third (not so) wise man as the three indulge in very silly bouts of exaggerated camel-riding – though it’s never specified whether they take one hump or two. Throw in toy sheep (literally), a rock on wheels, revolving Roman columns and ruins, a precarious star from the East, angels teetering on chairs, a magically lit Bethlehem stable, a Roman soldier to sneer at, a Herod’s nose that’s like Pinocchio’s when he’s out of Viagra, a bickering Mary and Joseph, a midwife on a bicycle who delivers baby Jesus once Mary is fully “diluted”, actors in the aisles and some panto-style audience participation, and that’s Christmas done and dusted!
Audiences always thrill to see big name performers live on stage. Puerile humour still thrills many, too, even if others groan, frown and wince, and though no special chemistry really sparks between the three performers, there’s still warmth, magic and laughter enough for everyone to enjoy the ludicrous, ridiculous chaos of The Messiah.
The show tours on to Cheltenham, Richmond and London’s The Other Palace.