Writer and director: Patrick Barlow
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
A recording of Ernest Gold’s theme from the film Exodus features prominently before the lights dim for the beginning of Patrick Barlow’s production of his own play The Messiah. Perhaps this should be taken as a subliminal cue to audiences to heed the music’s title and make their ways out before discovering for themselves just how unfunny what is to follow turns out to be.
40 years ago, the highlight of festive television would have been The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special and the highlight of that show would have been the play what Ernie wrote. In essence, here we have such a play, performed by two comedy actors and complete with a guest singing star, but what might have been a 10-minute sketch is put on a rack and stretched out painfully to two hours, including an interval.
The Morecambe figure is Ronald Breame (John Marquez), a mischievous clown, dressed in a suit several sizes too small. He acts most of the roles in a Nativity play that is written and produced by the pompous and deluded Maurice Rose (Hugh Dennis), dressed like a retired army officer in a brass-buttoned blazer. It took decades for Morecambe and Wise to make their on-screen characters fully-rounded and to perfect their synchronised comic timing, so it comes as no surprise that, in comparison, Marquez and Dennis look like beginners. They try very hard to make the comedy in Barlow’s script work, but they are defeated repeatedly.
The “guest star” is Mrs Leonora Fflyte (Lesley Garrett), who sings arias ranging from Handel to Puccini, without musical accompaniment. Her rendition of Silent Night is exquisite. Designer Francis O’Connor gives the show the correct feel of an incompetent village hall Nativity play, with marble columns in front of a blue curtain that is speckled with gold stars. When the back curtain opens, it reveals a wobbly, cardboard Bethlehem.The design is vaguely Roman, vaguely Middle Eastern, vaguely 2,000 years ago and vaguely cheap.
Barlow scored a big hit with his adaptation of The 39 Steps, but this show is more than “just a short tube ride from London’s glittering West End”, as the writer describes The Other Palace. It is particularly disappointing that Barlow relies so heavily on double entendres, Malapropisms and tired, predictable old gags. The programme suggests “Virgin on the Ridiculous” as an alternative title and this would have summed up the level of the humour well.
Even in the season of goodwill to all, it is difficult to find much good to say about The Messiah. The main consolation is Garrett. She is cast to play what we assume to be a third-rate soprano, but, thankfully, this proves to be outside her range. She climaxes with a rousing Hallelujah Chorus and the show ends there. Hallelujah indeed.
Runs until 5 January 2019 | Image: Robert Day