Messiah Man

Tue 7th – Sat 11th February 2012

reviews

Yara Rodrigues Fowler

at 03:54 on 8th Feb 2012

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Adam Lebovits and Matt Fuller’s ‘Messiah Man’ got off to a fantastic start, its unpredictable and abundant wit provoking uncontrollable laughter from the audience, managing to combine (in typical Oxford Revue style) the levity, intelligence and extreme silliness characteristic of the best British comedy. The play begins with a variety of scenes and personalities, each misleading and redirecting the audience’s comic and narratorial expectations - the excellent build-up created by the slowly recounted story of young girl who communicates at night with a ghost via morse code across her bedroom wall, being just one of many examples: the narrator informs us she has just offered the ghost ice-cream - despite the fact that neither understand morse code and that ice-cream has not yet been invented... I won't spoil any more.

The narrator (Jack Morgan) at times creates enchanting comedy; the tone and timing of his execution are hard to fault, however, his memory of the lines was unfortunately imperfect and, therefore, particularly towards the end of the piece, disappointing. The unflinching and brazen enthusiasm of the protagonist John Murray Spears, (Ben Cohen) was likewise well-performed, although he was at once less thrilling and more consistent than Morgan.

The minor characters of the play (all either Mary Flenigan or Michael Beale) were the silliest and most delightful part of both the writing and performance: my personal favourites being Flenigan’s snail-paced cripple jail-keeper (think ‘wise woman’ from Blackadder) and John Murray’s shy brother ‘Charles’, who was so tragically uncharismatic that the narrator managed to convince the audience to boo him off (another example of Morgan's excellent rapport with his audience). It is this combination - of the edgy self-consciousness of the narrator (“that wasn’t a joke - but whatever - laugh”) and the nuanced wackiness of the characters that gives this play its edge. This edge is, however, anti-climatically curtailed by the second half of the play.

The reason I would tentatively give, is that ‘Messiah Man’ is a set of very competent sketches trying to become a play; as soon as it attempted to focus on the story of John Murray Spears and his wife Betsy (Liv Gillman), necessarily minimising the role of narrator and minor characters, it lost its punch. As we watch the events of Murray’s career as a minister in 19th century Boston unfold, we realise that this is a story which has neither the tension nor the depth to justify its telling: the second half of the play lacks cohesion and comic spontaneity. At one point - the ‘climax’ - the writers seem to be aiming at some kind of seriousness (or was it a parody of seriousness?) leaving the audience unsure of how to react, and consequently soliciting no reaction at all.

Nevertheless - I recommend this play: it will make you laugh - probably hysterically - (especially for those who grew up on a diet of Faulty Towers, Blackadder and Mighty-Boosh), just don’t expect it to be perfect.

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Declan Clowry

at 11:03 on 8th Feb 2012

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Putting on a piece of new writing in Oxford is a brave thing to do. Without the draw of a famous name you have to rely on your own ingenuity and what little reputation you may have gained through previous shows to pull in a crowd. With this in mind, I feel that Matt Fuller and Adam Lebovits deserve credit for bringing 'Messiah Man' to the stage for the first time, and for boldly exposing their comedic baby to the public eye without the safety blanket of the Oxford Revue (of which Lebovits used to be co-President).

That said, it is also true that fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and although there were some truly funny moments in the piece and some great performances, the whole thing smacked of under-preparedness and failed to sustain any feeling of cohesiveness or direction. It would be unfair to pretend any knowledge of the writing process, but there seemed to be a great deal of "random" humour that relied simply on oddness and jarred with simultaneous attempts to create a sense of pathos from John Murray Spear's (Ben Cohen) repeated failure to do good. Examples include a failed running gag about figs and an admittedly funny episode in which the (sexy) ghost of Benjamin Franklin, played by Mary Flanigan, turns up to possess Spear whilst apparently experiencing an orgasm or three. On top of this, the plot is either heavily influenced by the Cohen brothers' "shit just happens" brand of storytelling, or it has been thrown together from a series of more or less funny ideas with little regard for building up to any sort of climax. The "God machine" promised in the marketing material doesn't turn up until relatively near the end of the play, and when it does there is no great sense of expectancy, no feeling that the rest of Spears' life that we have already seen has led up to this crowning moment. The dramatic revealing of a (yes intentionally but nonetheless inexcusably) shoddy prop machine failed to elicit a laugh from an audience that had already been conditioned to expect the inane, and poor Cohen was left to resort to plucking a member of the audience on stage like a magician in order to keep things lively.

This magician's act is just one of a number of audience interactions that help keep engagement despite a somewhat erratic plot (to give you a clue, it requires a narrator in the form of Jack Morgan to guide us through the chaos). The stage is arranged in traverse, with audience members on either side, largely to facilitate such fraternization. The actors all dealt admirably with the close proximity of the audience, Cohen impressively managing to shake every member's hand, stopping on myself for at least two minutes, without for a moment losing the look of manic good-will that he sustained throughout almost the whole performance. His ability to stay in character through improvised sections was one of the highlights of the play, as was his comic timing and strong physical presence on stage. My only serious complaint would be that his sincerity, whilst amusing in certain scenes (e.g. a conversation with a rather absent minded God), sometimes jarred with his silliness in others. I couldn't tell if he was trying to parody preachers or whether these moments were meant to elicit our sympathy. Liv Gilman, who played a number of roles including Spear's wife Betsy, similarly managed to confuse by playing alternately a seriously concerned lover and a comedically lascivious wench. For me her strongest moment was in fact as a guard with a limp (perhaps she took an arrow to the knee...), taking at least a minute to cross the stage as other actors mimed awkward impatience. Other supporting actors Michael Beale and Mary Flannigan were equally strong on the comic timing and were evidently very aware (or well directed) of how they held and used their bodies in subtly different ways as they played at least half a dozen roles each. Less successful was Jack Morgan as the narrator, who, despite some very well delivered jokes, consistently managed to corpse, correct his own lines, and stand on unlit parts of the stage whilst delivering speeches.

Having said that, Morgan may not be entirely to blame for standing in the dark. The lighting seemed to change constantly and erratically, with unused parts of the stage often spotlighted and actors wandering in and out of dark patches. Due to the small space of the BT they were always visible, but the general appearance was messy. Perhaps such technical faults were just first night stutters on the part of Lebovits (who was manning the lights and sound), but they strengthened the already existing feeling that this is a show that has been thrown together a little too hastily, with too little attention to detail covered up by a great deal of energy and derring do on the part of the cast. Despite its faults, Fuller and Lebovits' play shows a great deal of creativity and perhaps even the flicker of comedic genius, which prevents me from consigning it to the scrap heap completely. Messiah Man's hapless hero John Murray Spear himself puts it perfectly, "As God always used to say: better luck next time champ!"

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