The nativity story is something that The REP is no stranger to, having produced the highly successful Nativity! The Musical as their pre-Christmas treat last year. This year they have certainly taken a whole different view into the biblical story for this production of The Messiah. But Bah Humbug! Don’t worry all you Grinches who can’t stand the anything festive before December, there is nothing explicitly Christmassy in this show as this comical re-enactment of the nativity is so masterfully done.
Playwright and comedian Patrick Barlow is now taking the helm as director (with associate director Tom Latter) of his own 80’s comedy play which he wrote back in the days of the National Theatre of Brent, and which he also starred in alongside partner Jim Broadbent on TV. While this production is superbly directed, the writing seems just as fresh and timeless as it would have been 30 years ago. One could say it is Monty Python’s The Life of Brian meets The Play That Goes Wrong (Even the title can’t help but prompt the quote “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”). However, I wouldn’t say that this piece is as side-splittingly funny as those two examples as at times, the humour is a little thin and drags on longer than it needs to. But overall, and thanks to the marvellous trio of actors it is sure to bring a grin to your face, maybe even a dozen or so chuckles.
Leading this trio of actors are well-known faces from TV; Outnumbered and Mock The Week’s Hugh Dennis and Doc Martin’s John Marquez as Maurice Rose and Ronald Bream; the “theatre company” of two who present to us the Nativity using their less-than-adequate skills, portraying a cast of thousands. It is surprising how little theatre work Dennis has done over the years as he seems right at home on stage. Maurice Rose appears as the wiser, intelligent character trying to keep the performance afloat until we eventually realise he is merely a man having a mid-life crisis – a character which Dennis wonderfully captures. In every double act, there is a less intelligent, submissive and anxious character, which Marquez brilliantly portrays as Ronald Bream; earning more of the laughs. Ultimately this play is about the two friends who find love in each other through ensuring the nativity goes ahead. They are supported by the soprano superstar Lesley Garrett, who has a glorious voice and a diva-like personality as Mrs Leonora Fflyte. When she sings acapella, there is no need for any symphony orchestra to back her as her voice is utterly divine, providing verses of well-loved hymns and carols. She also joins in some of the comedy routines, playing a third wise man and being the centrepiece of Rose and Bream’s joyous dance routine, among other mayhem.
The set is pretty simplistic, yet highly effective thanks to Francis O’Connor’s great design. A starry blue curtain is our backdrop, while a revolving stage sits in the centre and spins around the ruined pillars. The revolve may not be used until act two, but the scenes that take place on it are well worth the wait. Howard Hudson’s lighting also fittingly illuminates these terrific actors to give a flavour of each scene in the nativity story.
What is great about this production it ultimately has virtually nothing to do with religion, nor politics or any big social issues that may be lurking over our heads in these times, but it is a heart-warming portrayal of friendship and a love for each other. As a comedy; the laughs do come and go, but a huge bravo must be given to this talented trio.
The Messiah runs at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday, prior to a UK tour and London run.
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