The Messiah

Gardens Point Theatre (Hothouse Theatre)


By Patrick Barlow and others

Professional production

Georg Frederic Handel it ain’t, unless you include the excerpts from the world’s most famous oratorio as sung by diva Mrs Barbara Redmond Bird (aka Carita Farrer). This she does in a wonderful shot-purple taffeta crinoline, ever-so-slightly out of date, as she is.

From her fake Regency armchair, she warbles away at arias from Messiah ranging from bass to soprano, with a bit of “The Minstrel Boy” and “The Bonnie Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond” thrown in, usually to rapturous applause, especially when she bowed low and revealed an impressive cleavage which managed to hide two metal spoons until almost the end of the performance. (Sorry, but you really had to be there.)
BR> The rapturous applause came from a full house at the Friday matinee, composed of groups as disparate as high schools students en masse, both male and female, although strictly segregated, and the grey-haired matinee set. It’s not often that an irreverent show like this will appeal to both kinds of audience for the same reason, especially when it’s as deliberately silly as this is.

Do they go for the impudent treatment of the nativity story, and the gloriously daft behaviour of the three actors and the chance to join in and shout a lot? Or are they, on a more serious level, appreciating the fact that the story is so important that it can survive even this kind of treatment, in the same way that Monty Python’s Life of Brian did? Because, in spite of everything, when the drums rolled and the stage backlights came up after the hilarity of the birth scene itself, where the invisible figure of Mary was delivered of her baby by the two men in the cast, and then appeared with a tiny romper suit on her/his belly (Mary is played by the irrepressible Hayden Spencer), suddenly it all became very quiet and very beautiful and the dignity was restored. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did, and was a very moving moment of theatre.

The scenario goes something like this: a group of very amateur actors sets out to perform a nativity play, but by ill-fortune their number is reduced to two, both men. That raises the problem of who is going to be the third Magi, who will play Mary, and how these two incompetents will juggle the multitude of parts. Jean-Marc Russ, with an accent as well-clipped as his moustache, is the entrepreneur/director Leslie Barrymore Locket, who tries to wheedle the bumbling incompetence of Owen Blunt (Hayden Spencer) into giving some sort of performance as both Herod and Mary , while he performs the parts of Joseph, assorted angels and, of course, the Wisest and Most Wonderful of the Wise Men, Balthazar, a role that involved a multi-coloured glitter turban twice as big as his head, which evokes the wrath of Owen, who had been promised the role.

And so it goes on, to the accompaniment of sulks, tantrums and exits-in-a-huff, so that the audience has to coax Leslie to come back into the theatre after we have all voted his performance as the most wooden. It sounds crass, but it’s one of those shows that is much funnier in performance than description, especially with the talents of three of Brisbane’s best-known and most beloved performers adding their own personal touches.

Farce it is, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than that, but quite apart from the sheer hilarity of the performances, it’s luring people back into the theatre, proving that theatre can be fun as well as serious. And if it gets those schoolkids to come to other plays, so that they develop a more subtle understanding of what live theatre can do, then who can possibly argue that the silliness of The Messiah (and hands up who spotted the subtle difference in the title) isn’t as worthy a theatrical experience as a Monty Python movie, a kindergarten nativity play or even (although this is really pushing it!) an 18th century oratorio?

So let’s hear it for Georg Frederic Handel, Baby Jesus, and the Hothouse Theatre Company, and if you live out of town, look out for them in a regional centre near you.

Director Jon Halpin

Designer Rob Scott

Sound Brett Collery

Played 3 and 4 May 2007

Duration : 2 hours 15 minutes, with one 20-minute interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 3rd May 2007)