Photos - Tony McKendrick
This very English play concerns two hapless thespians – the self-important Desmond Dingle (Iain Lang) and his dopey sidekick Raymond Box (Guy Hooper) – and their efforts to stage a Christmas play for the paying public. Fortunately, an effort has been made to Australianise the material, through the inclusion of local references – a device that is often annoying but here works well – and through the recognisably Australian personas adopted by the two leads. The costuming helps too, with Desmond dressed about thirty years behind fashion trends while Raymond is the archetypical Aussie boofhead, clearly uncomfortable in an ill-fitting suit.
Desmond Dingle has thoughtfully written the evening’s entertainment himself. His masterwork focuses on Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem – he plays Joseph and Raymond plays Mary – but also features a host of minor characters along the way (including the Archangel Gabriel, the Three Wise Men and a very nutty King Herod).
Apparently the only members of the ‘National Theatre of Tranmere,' Desmond and Raymond are enthusiastic but seem to have skimped a little on rehearsal. Raymond doesn’t remember his lines (or does but has misinterpreted Desmond’s handwriting), Desmond has recast roles without telling Raymond, and new ideas for bits of business occur to them spontaneously as the show progresses – a highlight being Raymond’s ludicrously complex mime (more charades than Marcel Marceau) of the Innkeeper’s speech about there being no room.
In short, it’s all very funny and a lot of fun - with audience participation, whimsical props and corny lighting adding to the overall effect. And it’s interesting to find that, even ineptly handled as it is by these buffoons, the nativity story resonates as a theatrical experience, especially with musical accompaniment in the form of the vocal stylings of special guest Miss Noreen Le Mottee (playing ‘herself’).
Guy Hooper plays Raymond, a sincere but utterly clueless child-man, with total commitment. His portrayal of Raymond’s portrayal of the 14 year-old Virgin Mary is hilarious. Reminiscent of classic Monty Python, this character is funny because certain words and mannerisms are funny when coming from an incongruous source, but it ultimately transcends this and becomes something quite surreal.
This sort of comedy is also about taking the piss – out of everything and everyone. When Joseph asks Mary if she’d like a Milo, it’s not funny because the idea of drinking Milo in Nazareth is funny – rather, because it highlights the mundane quality of life, whether you’re Mrs Johnson from down the road or the mother of Christ. It’s a leveling sort of humour, and one that appeals to an Australian sensibility as much as to a British one.
Hooper is strong in all the roles he takes on – the Shepherd who’s dying to see an angel but just misses out was a particular favourite – and his relationship with his mentor Desmond Dingle is rather sweet: he tries to get out from under Desmond’s thumb but clearly is desperate for his approval.
As Desmond, Iain Lang is consistently very funny, especially when launching into some of Desmond’s more esoteric flights of fancy. Still, you never feel that there’s a lot at stake for Desmond, as though he’s not really touched by what’s going on. That actually could be the way the character is written. Is the idea that Desmond, the one who fancies himself as a real “artiste”, is holding himself aloof, while Raymond, the hopeless amateur, is getting on with things and actually connecting to the audience?
Noreen Le Motte is a dynamic presence and her sudden outbursts of song eccentrically amusing here. I do think she’s quite wasted, however, and I can’t see why the role was written with virtually no dialogue and little meaningful interaction with the other cast.
I suppose this is one of the less appealing aspects of the golden era of British comedy rearing its head: the tendency to leave female performers out altogether. Monty Python is no less brilliant for being all male and the fact that Dud and Pete preferred each other’s company to women’s in no way lowers them in my estimation, but does this tradition really need to be so pervasive still? (The Messiah was first performed in 1983 and revived in 2000). And if you are going to include a woman, why not allow her to be more than just an ongoing gag?
The Messiah is a fun, raucous and good-hearted piece and it’s skilfully and energetically executed by this production. It’s not all that profound – apart from being an affectionate tribute to the stalwarts of amateur theatre, I’m not quite sure what the point is – but TTC is not alone in considering it appropriate material for a major Australian theatre company (it has been presented by QTC, who first developed it for an Australian milieu, Black Swan and Hothouse Theatre) so I won’t nitpick on that score.
Tasmanian Theatre Company presents
by Patrick Barlow
Director Charles Parkinson
Venue: Backspace Theatre, Theatre Royal
Dates: Every Thur - Sat this November.
Time: 8.15pm (Special Family Matinee on Sat 21, at 2.15pm)
Tickets: Adults: $42, Concessions: $25
Bookings: (03) 6233 2299 | www.tastheatre.com