John Marquez as Ronald Bream, Lesley Garrett as Mrs Leonora Fflyte and Hugh Dennis as Maurice Rose.

Pictures: Robert Day

The Messiah

Birmingham Rep


So, we have Maurice, a Hoover demonstrator-cum-impresario with his own theatre company . . . comprising himself and the talent challenged Ronald, plus opera singer Mrs F, all performing his self-penned version of the greatest story ever told, the Nativity.

It is perhaps not the greatest penning of the greatest story, written, as it is, in a form that consists largely of cruelty to the mother tongue, but it is certainly the funniest.

Maurice’s company consists of Ronald Bream, a man whose acting abilities are yet to be discovered, and Mrs Leonora Fflyte, an operatic diva with her own throne like chair, in keeping with her status.

And, a few week’s before the Yuletide tinsel is ceremonially brought down from the loft, this motley trio set about telling the Christmas story on a set (Francis O’Connor) which is as pretentious as the production. Roman columns, some just ruins, in a temple circle with plush curtains to reveal a light-up – when it works – town, and a wheel-on rock upon which God or the archangel Gabriel can stand.

It is an overblown set more in keeping with Julius Caesar or Ben Hur, than a less than competent production by would-be Thespians, but writer and director Patrick Barlow (he of The 39 Steps Fame)  has a few more digs at the theatrical world than just a pretentious set in his clever and very funny script whether it be the overlong musical intros or singers that won’t stop, or acting that would make even the worst Saturday morning stage school cringe.


Maurice as God, on the wheel-on rock, and Ronald as the Archangel Gabriel

Hugh Dennis is wonderfully pompous as Maurice, full of self-importance, looking down upon the lesser lights in his company, i.e. Ronald. His acting ability is marginally better than that of the set and much the same could be said of the script what he had wrote about the Messiah and other stuff what he had wrote about as well as what he wrote about what he said he wrote about first . . . the danger is that his style seems to be catching.

It is a gloriously funny characterisation. As for Maurice’s cast, John Marquez is just a brilliant foil as Ronald, a beautiful example of the art of the clown. His facial expressions and physical gestures are comedy gold while his fracturing of the English language is priceless – Mary’s main attractions during the birth of the Messiah for example.

He also has one of the best lines when, playing the part of Mary, he is asked when her child will be born “Christmas”, came the reply.

Lesley Garrett has never been your typical opera singer, always game for anything, and here she turns up as Leonora Fflyte, Mrs F, who both Maurice and Ronald hold in a certain degree of awe, after all she is perceived as proper and cultured, with opera at the classier end of theatre.

She shows some lovely comic touches including rolling around as everyone loses their footing as the stage revolves – largely because Ronald struggles to get back on to a moving stage and can’t stand up when he does. She also shows why she is one of our leading sopranos with her superb, classically trained voice.


Maurice as one of the three kings and Ronald as Herod

It’s a production which brings elements of Peter Pan ad Tinkerbell to the Christmas story, along with audience participation, including an imaginary donkey, and Unto Us a Child is Born from Handel’s Messiah as a trio . . . with actions.

We have the Roman census, which is another audience participation event, then there are angels, three kings, Herod – who is afraid of dark, enclosed spaces – a discussion on the cleanliness of Mary’s home and whether she was depressed, and a star that changes direction as often as a drunk on his stagger home. And then there are the disagreements in the company, the telling of their personal journeys, oh, and some sheep.

There are jokes old and new (although in this religious context perhaps we should say ancient and modern) along with word play which ranges from remarkably silly to remarkably clever and all providing laughs a plenty.

The subject might be the very rock on which Christianity stands but the production never pokes fun at the true Christmas story, just the telling of it by this company of life’s unfortunates, a modern-day version of Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals.

There is even an instant when, just for a moment, the real Nativity hovers calm and bright above the laughs.

This new Birmingham Rep production heads off on tour before landing in the West End for Christmas. It might be a few weeks to go yet before the festive season, but any time is the season for a good laugh and The Messiah is guaranteed to provide a very early, very merry Christmas for anyone. Ho Ho Ho! To 27-10-18

Roger Clarke


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