The Messiah (Richmond Theatre)

The Messiah (Richmond Theatre, until Saturday December 1st, then The Other Palace until January 5th)

A chorus of hallelujahs can be raised for the funny and enjoyable comedy, The Messiah, which has stopped off at Richmond Theatre this week as part of a tour and which takes up residence  at The Other Palace for a month from next week.

There’s a distinct flavour of The Play That Goes Wrong to this seasonal take on the greatest story ever told, filled with plenty of Nativity mishaps, but in fact it dates from 1983 and the creative mind of double act the National Theatre of Brent, of which its writer Patrick Barlow is a member.

As the drama and comedy unfold it quickly becomes clear the most stable thing in the production is the birthplace of Jesus – and even that is eventually flattened in an actor’s fit of pique.

Not so much a play, more an elongated comedy sketch, it’s the sort of thing that might have been performed once upon a time by The Two Ronnies or Morecambe and Wise – indeed one character talks about “the play what I wrote.”

The humour lies in the double act playing all the characters in the Nativity, but even in its wackiness there is a very human story at its heart and even a metaphysical later as the performers present the piece as “the candid fruits of their spiritual journeys.” There are some very touching moments as the two male actors have epiphanies and realise how others see them, but they are never left to face reality alone.

It’s not three wise men who bring the piece to life, but a very talented trio of well-known performers, who work together magnificently to keep the laughs coming.

Hugh Dennis plays the pompous Maurice Rose, the founder, director, writer and lead actor in the story, unaware of his serious limitations but ploughing on through fluffs and disasters courageously. He manages to be strait-laced throughout and puts across well the character’s genuine sense of wanting to put on something memorable and uplifting.

John Marquez, one of the best comic actors around (and very familiar with this theatre milieu after appearances with sibling Martin as The Brothers Marquez) is perfect as Ronald, the sidekick lacking in confidence but eventually bursting into uncontrolled spontaneity. Dennis and Marquez obviously have a respect for each other and work extremely well together.

The third part of this unholy trinity is the glorious soprano Lesley Garrett, making her first appearance in a play and clearly loving every moment. She is mostly present for “doing the singing” performing works from Handel’s  Messiah and others unaccompanied but she also joins in the fun, especially as one of the wise man on the journey across the desert by camel (cue an unpredictable revolving stage).

Having appeared in the production since its immaculate conception on stage, radio and TV, Barlow has refined the original and now also directs, allowing degrees of modernity (one of the characters calls for a referendum on one issue and Call the Midwife is also referenced) and letting the performers themselves discover new and fresh elements in the script.

There’s pleasing physical comedy, but also plenty of chuckles to be had through the script’s wordplay. One of the clever lines involves Maurice talking to a monk in a south of England monastery, “on tussocks in cassocks in Hassocks in Sussex.”

The audience is also called upon to play its part whether that be individuals in the front row providing sound effects or looking after the donkey or everyone expected to be a rebellious rabble at the census.

It’s not as plain daft as Monty Python and not so physically exhausting as the Mischief Theatre offerings of plays going wrong, but The Messiah has its own charm, wit and wisdom to impart and is always worthy of a second coming.

David Guest

Photo, Robert Day