Julian Eaves reviews The Messiah by Patrick Barlow now playing at The Other Palace Theatre, London.
The Other Palace,
11th December 2018
Jesus Christ. Those two words will pass through your mind – if not across your lips, however ‘sotto voce’ – many times if you spend your good money (top price £75, no less!) to sit through this lead balloon of a show. With a running time of just two hours, including the hugely welcome and all-too-brief interval, it feels like several times that length in its painful duration.
How a genius like Patrick Barlow – inventor, founder, creator of that miracle of theatrical magic, ‘The 39 Steps’ – can have strayed, nay – fallen!, into committing this sin of bad taste and appalling judgement is anyone’s guess. Was he lured? Did he stumble? Was he pushed? We may never find out, but what we do know, considering he’s had 35 years to worry over this sorry mess of a script, the excuse of accidental error can no longer be applied. To revive this show now, and in its present dismal shape, is a deliberate act.
OK. So, where do the problems begin? First, the text is all talk and precious little action. That would not matter so much if the jokes – and there are endless attempts at them – were any good; but they are emphatically not. We get a tired re-run of old, old, old and ancient ‘cracks’. The cast – and more about them in a minute – haven’t the slightest idea how to breathe life into them, and so largely don’t try. They stand centre stage, fairly motionless, for most of the event, and just mouth the vacuous lines fed to them. The direction and writing are all the doing of Mr Barlow, and even though John Ramm, Jude Kelly and Julian Hough have all helped in providing ‘additional material’, their combined efforts do not come up with anything worthy of a second look, much less a revival a third of a century later. So, why bother?
The design by Francis O’Connor looks like a 50s production of ‘Out Of This World’, or maybe the third act of ‘Tales of Hoffmann’, and quite possibly it is just that: it certainly bears precious little relationship to the nativity yarn being dragged out once again on the stage. A Delphic ruined temple? Why? Your guess is as good as mine. Limited wing space is noisily and awkwardly employed for the wheeling on and off of various bulky trucks, but to what essential purpose? Where ‘The 39 Steps’ scored again and again and again was in its fantastic ability to use theatre qua theatre to tell the story: no such imagination seems to have possessed Barlow and his collaborators here, and more’s the pity.
The lighting by Howard Hudson is efficient, but nothing more: you sort of notice it more when it comes up and goes down in the pointless scene of the campfire while en route to Be-the-le-hem (arch pronunciations are this production’s forte). And the ‘sound’ by Bobby Aitken ropes in some aural nods to the cinerama epics scored by Rosza and Tiomkin, et al, but – again – to what essential purpose? It is never made clear. They’re just more items thrown into the lifeless mix to drown and rot.
Now, the cast. Lesley Garrett, billed here – as in many places – as ‘The Nation’s Favourite Soprano’, is probably the chief draw for some moneyed patrons who may be this production’s target prey, and she puts in a game attempt at singing – mostly a capella, no thanks to Mr Aitken – a medley of tunes from Handel’s oratorio of the same name. Why? I have not the slightest idea. She gets to wear a glam green fish-like platform gown, complete with beauty-pageant sash, but – again – I would ask you to wrack your brains to find a reason why. As for her voice, the ‘production’ within the production she is maybe supposed to be in is meant, I believe, to be shoddy and hopeless, and it is unclear why (a) a singer who is solidly in tune throughout is working in it and (b) is she really giving of her best, or if there is meant to be something clumsy and gauche about her pretensions? Being in the dark about this doesn’t do anyone any favours, least of all Miss Garrett.
Hugh Dennis officially sits above La Lesley, and he is known from the telly. There, it seems, he has left most of his acting ability, and he turns in a performance that might well look a whole lot better were a clever camera team and artful studio director at work to cobble together an effective result. In their absence, he looks lost and unsupported on the stage, and in desperate need of not only better lines to say but a whole lot more of a better clue about how to deliver them.
Second to Dennis in the running comes the one performer who seems to realise what he has to pump into this tawdry hokum in order to get it to stagger from start to finish: John Marquez. He is also blessed with the most interestingly written (and I use the term very generously) copy: he gives us a campy Virgin Mary, and – in the show’s SINGLE interesting moment of theatricalia – a bicycle-riding midwife. If anyone comes close to escaping from this farago with any credibility at all, then it is him. Dennis, to his credit, has a bit of a go, in the second half, at a nervous breakdown, but it is not anything that is likely to see him cast in the forthcoming revival of ‘Follies’, much less ‘King Lear’: it is the kind of ‘breakdown’ that can probably be cured by a cup of tea, and in fact turns out to be curable with a hug. So much for breakdowns, then.
There are a couple of understudies, too – Margaret Preece and Adam Morris – who I didn’t get to see, and – you know – I really wanted to. I was desperate to see anyone else bring something, anything, to this tiresome evening. Even a theatre cat, wandering across the stage, would have made me feel I had not entirely wasted the evening. But, alas, I was disappointed. In every sense.
However, a final word has to go to the audience: packed to the gunwhales with the great and good of TV, film radio and theatre for the press night, I thought they acted beautifully, doing wonders to make you nearly believe they were sincerely having a good time. Yes, they were quite plainly friends and family – and, importantly, financially interested business associates – of the people behind the show, and politeness was the order of the day. It remains to be seen how well this show will fare as it tries to find an undemanding and affluent audience, careless with its money, and very forgiving of dull, unimaginative theatre.
We shall have to see about that.