Tag Archives: Neil Connolly

Handel's Messiah

Handel’s Messiah: The Live Experience


Theatre Royal Drury Lane



Handel's Messiah

“The soloists are captivating”


When Handel composed the music for “Messiah” in 1741 it initially had a mixed and modest reception and caused a rift between Handel and the librettist Charles Jennens. Handel completed the score in just over three weeks, the speed of which many perceived as a sign of ecstatic and divine energy but Jennens merely put it down to carelessness and laxity. Despite the faltering start, the oratorio gained in popularity eventually becoming one of the best known and frequently performed choral works. The ‘Hallelujah’ chorus being instantly recognisable and often performed as a standalone piece.

“Messiah” tells the whole life story of Christ from birth to death, and beyond. The go-to work to perform during the Easter or Christmas period, conductor Gregory Batsleer’s interpretation draws it away from the classical concert hall with the intention of pulling in a wider audience from the West End and beyond. The scale and ambition are on a grand scale; combining the London Symphony Chorus and the English Chamber Orchestra with four of the top soloists of the classical world. It is billed as an ‘immersive’ experience although the hype merely adds fuel to the debate as to what ‘immersive’ actually means in the theatrical context.

There is no getting away from the fact that the production is visually and aurally stunning. The libretto leaves more to be desired. A series of reflections and soundbites from the Old and New Testaments with none of the singers having any identifiable role. So, the success has to rely in part on the drama of the piece. The soloists are captivating: the soprano Danielle De Niese, Mezzo-Soprano Idunnu Münch, Baritone-Bass Cody Quattlebaum and tenor Nicky Spence perform with the requisite pageantry and purity, reinforced by the choir. The orchestra fleshes out the less muscular choruses to bring them in line with the stronger numbers, although the consistency does veer close to monotony at times. It is interspersed with narration from the charismatic Martina Laird and Arthur Darvill as ‘Mother’ and ‘Child’ respectively; reciting poetic prose on the themes of hope sacrifice and redemption.

The inclusion of dance adds another layer. Dan Baines, Jemima Brown and Sera Maehera accompany the music in the guise of rebel, leader and healer. They appear and disappear from the narrative, sometimes poignantly and sometimes superfluously, but always beguiling – especially Brown whose presence is quite hypnotic.

But the question remains as to how much this adds to the experience. It is often at odds with the performance, and most guilty of this is the vast video screen that splits the choir down the middle. Unavoidable, it intrudes throughout with images that bear little relation to the story, unless the references are deliberately oblique. Interesting as they are, they distract somewhat. As do the choice of costume for the narrators; a kind of Mad Max battle garb with token Biblical accessory – apocryphal and apocalyptic – the point of which misses its target.

Which is the fundamental flaw. The programme notes explain the intention to bring classical music to the masses. To make it inclusive and, I suppose, immersive. It assumes that the general population regard classical music as ‘dull and stuffy’ and that it is not something most people can relate to. Handel might not have agreed, but he would have approved of the approach. He was a showman himself after all; interested in the drama and not just the music. The multimedia elements are a response to the way the world is now. But while they might draw in a new crowd for this ‘dull and stuffy’ (the conductor’s words, not mine) music, they do little to make us follow the story and therefore capture the passion inherent in the score. Which is disengaging, instead of having the desired effect. “Messiah”, as an oratorio, has no story as such – so is not the easiest to follow. But the audience can wallow in the beauty of the music and let the imagination construct the scenes. This production unfortunately takes that away and replaces it with more confusion.



Reviewed on 6th December 2022

by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Craig Fuller




Recently reviewed by Jonathan:


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Click here to read all our latest reviews

Lamplighters – 4 Stars



Old Red Lion Theatre

Reviewed – 26th July 2018


“The small space at the Old Red Lion is perfect for the piece, bolstering the sense of conspiracy, not to mention comedy”


A confession: I have never read a book by John Le Carré. Sure, I watched The Night Manager on telly, and I’m vaguely familiar with the name George Smiley, but beyond that I’m as in the dark about it all as his characters (presumably) would want me. With that having been cleared up, here is my review of an immersive, improvisational, one-man comedy based on the works of John Le Carré.

Luckily, as star and co-creator Neil Connolly assures us, my ignorance will not be an obstacle. Tonight, we are all co-conspirators in his game of spies. An agent has been killed in action somewhere in the Eastern Bloc under circumstances most suspicious and one by one we must all be signed up to “Operation: Stop the Greasy Reds”.

First, a handful of toy instruments are passed amongst the crowd to form the “house band”, or communications unit (who also end up providing the show’s soundtrack). Another hapless punter is designated “John Doe”, the victim, apparently killed by “unfortunate footwear”. Scalphunters, shoemakers, lamplighters, and janitors (official Le Carré terms, we are told) all play their part, but none quite so deftly as Connolly, who always keeps the piece on track, despite the anarchic twists and turns thrown up by the audience.

The small space at the Old Red Lion is perfect for the piece, bolstering the sense of conspiracy, not to mention comedy. Unlike some immersive theatre, the show doesn’t rely on expansive stage dressing or gimmicky set pieces. Instead we are carried through by Connolly’s talent as a storyteller.

I arrive knowing very little about Le Carré, and I leave knowing only a little more. However, in that time I laugh an awful lot and thanks to Connolly’s enthusiasm for the source material, I feel a bit closer to the dark and mysterious world he lovingly parodies. Perhaps it is finally time I came in from the cold and picked up a copy.


Reviewed by Harry True

Photography by Birdman Foxglove



Old Red lion Theatre until 18th August


Previously reviewed at this venue
The Moor | ★★★★ | February 2018
Plastic | ★★★★★ | April 2018
I am of Ireland | ★★★ | June 2018


Click here to see more of our latest reviews on thespyinthestalls.com