The REP, Birmingham, Monday 22nd October, 2018
Writer Patrick Barlow is the genius behind the hilarious hit adaptation of The 39 Steps, a show that never fails to tickle the funny bone. Here, his first play from 1983, gets a wash-and-brush-up in a perky revival – Barlow also directs, bringing in up-to-date topical references. The nature of his early work as the driving force of the ‘National Theatre of Brent’ is very much in evidence, as a pair of inept but well-meaning actors attempt to stage the biggest of stories: the birth of Jesus, using little more than a chair or two to stand on and the odd bit of costume to run around in.
Hugh Dennis is Maurice Rose – the Barlow figure of the two – whose grandiose ideas outstrip his capabilities. It’s not much of a stretch for Dennis, a widely recognised face from TV comedy, but this is the kind of thing at which he excels. The delivery and timing are impeccable. He is supported by John Marquez as Ronald Bream, an enthusiastic but clueless sidekick, who gets most of the laughs up against Dennis’s straight man. The pair is augmented by the addition of a special guest, Mrs Leonara Fflyte, a snooty opera singer who punctuates the story with unaccompanied singing. I would find it funnier if she were a Florence Foster Jenkins figure rather than the pitch-perfect Lesley Garrett – then, later, when the team actually achieves a moment of beauty, the singing of ‘Silent Night’ would come as a powerful surprise… But that’s just me.
Garrett proves herself a good sport, donning robes and headwear and a comedy beard and tearing around the stage as one of the Three Wise Men, pursuing the Star, and, of course, the singing is sublime – quite at odds with the ridiculousness of the action.
Barlow’s script is peppered with malapropisms, anachronisms and word play – it’s the kind of thing Radio Four churns out. There is even a Morecambe & Wise moment, as Dennis and Marquez back up Garrett, in much the same way that Eric & Ernie would ‘support’ Shirley Bassey. It’s funny stuff but there is nothing we haven’t seen before and in the genre of theatre-done-badly, the pinnacle has been attained by The Play That Goes Wrong. This is a smaller-scale affair that lacks big surprises.
For all that, it’s an amusing piece, quintessentially English in its humour, that mocks the storytelling rather than the story (the religious will not be offended). Your ribs will be tickled but you won’t split your sides.