John Marquez (Ronald Bream), Hugh Dennis (Maurice Rose), Lesley Garrett (Leonora Fflyte). Photo: Robert Day
Currently at the back end of a mini-tour – including the likes of Chichester Festival Theatre – Patrick Barlow’s three-handed comic romp around the story of The Nativity, The Messiah, is playing at Richmond Theatre this week before spending Christmas in London at The Other Palace (3 Dec – 5 Jan).
Led by a multi-doubling trio of performing heavyweights; Hugh Dennis (Outnumbered, Mock the Week, Fleabag, Not Going Out), John Marquez (Doc Martin, In The Club) and arguably Britain's most popular soprano, Leslie Garrett (Carousel, Strictly Come Dancing, Loose Women)… the author of smash hit spy spoof, The 39 Steps, has directed this updated version himself. Backed by a handful of prominent producers, Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s revival of Barlow’s first-ever play, written some thirty-five years ago, promises theatregoers: “the funniest and most magical Nativity you will ever see.”
At Richmond’s press night there were indeed several members of the audience who appeared to be in need of urgent medical assistance for fear of splitting their sides. However, for the more conservative crowd, reactions were somewhat more subdued, saving their biggest laugh for a brief Call the Midwife visual gag as Marquez cycles across stage quite possibly even dressed by the BBC’s own costume department.
The Maurice Rose Players are mounting a high-brow epic production of The Nativity. Written by Rose (Dennis) himself in an attempt to bring some much-needed spiritual gravitas to the greatest story ever told, the ‘Players’ performance unfortunately stars only three people; Maurice Rose, his looked-down-upon sidekick, Ronald Bream (Marquez), and classical society stalwart, Mrs Leonora Fflyte (Garrett) who demands – and gets – a throne-like seat when not performing onstage.
With Fflyte mainly ‘guest appearing’ with some well-delivered classical renditions throughout the evening, as a result of Maurice Rose undoubtedly generously stroking her ego with just enough praise to bring the diva out of retirement, nearly all of the onstage action comes from Dennis and Marquez (although Garrett does make up the third ‘King’ in addition to her musical interludes). I actually think that improv expert, Dennis, is somewhat restricted with a script on this occasion, even though with Marquez they make the best of Barlow’s material successfully achieving a number of genuine laugh-out-loud moments. But side-splitting I’m afraid it isn’t.
We have of course seen the likes of the amateur theatre sector being sent up before, most recently by Mischief Theatre’s The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong – which incidentally, like The Messiah, also spent its early days at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. However, for me The Messiah lacks Mischief’s ingenuity and sheer full-on slapstick mayhem (produced by a much larger cast) to work really well. Performing a three-hander at an intimate venue at The Fringe – where I’m sure it probably was hilarious – is a different prospect altogether to that of Chichester or Richmond Theatre’s stage for instance.
It’s quite probable that the celebrity draw of The Messiah’s cast will see it through with full houses, but I wouldn’t wait around too long for this production to reappear on the professional stage again. Ironically it may be the amateur market that finds itself performing it next December.
The Messiah plays at Richmond Theatre until Saturday, 1st December before transferring to The Other Palace from 3rd Dec – 6th Jan.
More at: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-messiah/richmond-theatre
Hugh Dennis as Maurice Rose & John Marquez as Ronald Bream. Photo: Robert Day