The Messiah - Review by Simon Jenner

Incestuous stars, passing of the ears, deep heat as a condition not an old muscle unguent. The dotty felicities of Patrick Barlow’s language in The Messiah directed by Rod Lewis are easily masked in the Norman Wisdom-like pratfalls of his hapless duo, Desmond ‘Olivier’ Dingle and his factotum actor Raymond Box, the full cast of The National Theatre of Brent, unless you add Mrs Flowers; and you should.

It’s not just consummate acting or script with all the undercutting, interruptions, public arguments, but the further ironies: a landlady who can sing gloriously and the freak tides of Box’s own naïve inspiration carried away and in that moment better than Dingle’s educated idiocies by a Bethlehem mile.

Oh, and the set. Michael Folkard’s miniature prosc-arch clouds and pillars give on to a miniature reveal of the town itself, beautifully painted. Add to that quality props, a host of ASMs and Claire Lewis’ threadbare miracles of costume, you realize that to appear as washed-up as this you need clean support. Dan Walker’s lighting is again far too good for the National Theatre of Brent, operated neatly by Alex Epps and Steve Coulson; and it’s this double-blind bind Barlow explores. To get across banality there has to be excellence. Michael James’ music and supplying the ‘minus ones’ of Handel so Ciru James’ soaring soprano can sound well, soaring, as well as co-ordinated furnishes another: here though it’s the incongruous excellence of Mrs Flowers in the first place. Ian Black’s sound design ensures the studio isn’t swamped.

Robert Purchese possesses a kind of warped genius for wannabe alpha males. He excelled in this in Holes last year and here his neurotic under-achieving Adrian Mole of the theatre hasn’t even the wit to realize when Culann Smyth’s Box is actually rather good when on amateur impro, with a splash of method-acting both attempt with excruciating results partly because Box’s naivety somehow gets him into the zone whereas Dingle’s control-freakery sabotages the flow, because it’s not gone his way.

Smyth’s versatility hints of coure that even his Box has resources Dingle can’t fathom: his cackling panto Herod, his flinchingly in-the-zone Mary with her ‘hold me’ and standing up for himself as the little man against the bullying intellectual seem the perfect flip-over of Dingle it’s flinchingly good and gets under your skin.

He’s determined to present the Nativity, with such anachronisms as when asked the time of tax registration he answers ‘Christmas’, which is of course about to happen for the first time. You’d think the audience’s laughter at this point would awaken Dingle. Nothing does but their later vote.

Such additional material as Box’s Mary making seventy-foot temple curtains, moaning at Joseph’s late nights out at the trade, and Box’s impro when they’re courting to mend the back door (slapped down) mark out Dingle’s dramaturgy. They want to bring realism to the nativity. They bring it to helpless laughter.

Ciru James has of course no business being here at all. Her stunning musicianship, luckily not guyed for the most part is part of the inspired lunacy. Here’s an international soprano who can nail all the top Cs and Bs of excerpts from the nativity yet who’s sitting with patience on a stool if not monument, interrupted on one occasion by Dingle and casually letting out a gleaming register of soprano arias full of genuine intensity. There’s a steeliness that won’t be guyed. You wonder at this rate if the NVT is going to proceed down the London Arcola’s Grimeborn Festival route for scratch and shaved-down opera.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice element in Box is the dramatic trigger for the cringing climax of the piece. Encouraging audience participation in key phrases and lines Dingle quickly comes to regret like ‘Rome’ (hiss) and ‘Caesar’ (hah!) and ‘Census’ ‘Census? we’re not a statistic’ lets Box out of his boxing-in. Rebellion and sulks follow, and more participation is begged. We’re at the Tinkerbell stage and you’ll have to unpack that for yourself.

Yet Barlow’s got an equivocal saccharine moment up his Godlike sleeve for the finale, the car-zinging town (in sound) and of course the birth. Shepherds, sheep and wise men as well as a magnificent Boxed-in Herod that cheerful panto psychopath all thrill in their turn. All from that absurd gesture at the start, the Michelangelo moment, God extending his forefinger as an electric shock to awaken the clay of Adam. Only Box gets his middle finger out to receive it: a sublime metaphor for this creation too.

Review by Simon Jenner - First published -