A comedic piece meant for two actors and a singer, The Messiah stems from playwright Patrick Barlow’s experience with The National Theatre of Brent, the two-man company he founded and with which he brought to the stage a number of critically acclaimed productions. The Messiah, originally dating from 1983, is one of Barlow’s earlier works, and even in this revisited version, where the names of the characters have been changed and the text updated, it shows. The text doesn’t have the clockwork flow or the almost perfect pace of his later works, and the humour feels in some places repetitive or contrived. This does not necessarily represent an obstacle to the enjoyment of the play as a whole, but there are hiccups in the writing that are reflected in the finish product, and the ending itself feels to some extent too abrupt, slightly underwhelming after a well-constructed build-up.
Still, Barlow undoubtedly has a sense for comedy and in more than one place The Messiah is genuinely funny. Tackling the vicissitudes of two amateurish, overly serious actors trying to put up a play about the Nativity, and coincidentally sort out the tensions in their personal relationship (as the play is ongoing), it takes therefore naturally the shape of a play-within-a-play or, rather, a play-about-a-play. The meta-theatrical idea of bringing to the stage characters portraying more or less incompetent actors plagued with staging a play with a variety of problems in the make is well established in the tradition of British theatre. It has spawned a series of interesting outcomes, and is still vital to this day; here The Messiah can boast a degree of originality that makes it stand out among other plays in this tradition. It also has some nods to the tradition of panto, particularly in the sections involving audience participation, and is well aware of other comedy greats that have in the past engaged with the Bible story, not least Monty Python and their Life of Brian. This results in a sense of humour that is equally based on physical comedy, wordplay, and what some might call ‘cringe humour’ – the investment of comedic value on awkward situations. Of these, the latter is the least effective, and the play works best when it relies on deadpan delivery and a tongue-in-cheek approach to its topic.
Hugh Dennis, here portraying the overly ambitious Maurice Rose, does not have a long history of stage acting, but his clear enjoyment of the part and ability to exploit the comedic tension of the text is one of the strengths of the play. His stage chemistry with John Marquez (portraying Ronald Bream, the other half of the company) is excellent, and Marquez brings a subtly surreal tone to his delivery that works particularly well with the writing. The ability of the actors to work well with each other helps sustain those parts of the production that are at the risk of feeling more contrived. Lesley Garrett as Mrs Leonora Fflyte delivers some good singing under tough circumstances, and a genuinely amused stage presence that works well with the general tone of the work.
The production has good feelings and the ability to elicit easy laughter, and while it doesn’t have the brilliance or the tight writing of some of Barlow’s other works, it is certainly very good for an evening of more lighthearted entertainment, possibly as a family outing. Comedy fans will find its tone in many ways familiar, but not obvious. It has a cast and director that are clearly devoted to it, and this shows throughout its duration. It makes for a pleasant divertissement – achieving in this, one feels, for the greatest part its intended purpose.