Review - The Messiah at The Other Palace
Given the age of austerity that we've lately been living through, with eight years of budget cuts under the current Conservative government eroding both public programmes and facilities, the time is probably ripe for a revival of the National Theatre of Brent's 1983 show The Messiah that epitomises the pitfalls (and pratfalls) of doing everything on a shoestring.
This is austerity theatre - albeit one with a happier result than decimated communities and widespread poverty. It is, however, something of an irony to find it newly housed in a theatre owned by a millionaire composer (and former member of the House of Lords), a mere stone's throw from Buckingham Palace: The Other Palace.
This radically truncated and deliberately shambolic version of the nativity story is probably the National Theatre of Brent's most famous show, adapted for both television and BBC Radio, and was previously revived in 2000. It also arrives in London at the same time as Nativity! The Musical - which re-sets the story to a junior school performing the nativity story with tunes - is about to play a season at Hammersmith's Eventim Apollo. The latest film version of that franchise Nativity Rocks! coincidentally shares the actor Hugh Dennis with The Messiah.
So there are some overlaps. But there's also a lovely sense of contained anarchy and surprise to this deliberately fumbling version of the familiar story. As its original star and co-creator Patrick Barlow, who now directs this revival, puts it in a programme note, "I've always loved The Messiah and what it's about, which is two men trying to achieve spiritual peace and they're totally inadequate to the job. It's also about two men who learn to care about each other. It's about some quite important things."
And yet, for all the self-importance of Maurice Rose, artistic director of the Maurice Rose Players whose enterprise this is, the show of course never takes itself seriously, even if he does. It's in the tension between the two extremes that the show achieves comedy lift-off. It may, of course, be the same joke endlessly recycled throughout the evening, but Hugh Dennis as Maurice and John Marquez as his hapless, helpless sidekick Ronald Bream, are such engaging company that they make this funny, silly show joyous seasonal entertainment. The icing on the cake is the luxury casting of opera diva Lesley Garrett as their onstage singer, Mrs Leonora Fflyte (or Mrs F as they call her), singing a cappella versions of Handel.
Photo credit: Robert Day