Starting its tour at Birmingham Repertory Theatre this month, The Messiah promises to present a nativity show like no other, as two out-of-their-depth actors travel the length and breadth of the country to put on a production of ‘biblical proportions’. Taking the role of Maurice is Hugh Dennis, best known from hit TV comedy series Outnumbered. What’s On caught up with him to find out more about The Messiah... 

“This is the revival of a play from the 1980s,” explains Hugh Dennis in talking about The Messiah. “It’s really about a two-man theatre group trying to stage the nativity story. It’s very funny and moving. We try to play all the characters between the two of us - so as you can imagine, we play lots of different characters each. The premise of it is that it’s a bit of a farce because we’re way out of our depth with it all. We’re terribly well intentioned, but we have no particular idea how we’re going to pull it off. It’s the first time our characters have actually performed their nativity show, and funnily enough, it will be the same for us - Birmingham is the first stop on our tour.

The Messiah is mainly comic rather than satirical. It’s about desire to stage something, longing for a nicer, kinder world - which is probably where some satire would come in, actually - and it’s about middle-age angst. But it’s all very funny.”

The other half of the nativity-performing theatrical duo is played by John Marquez - best known for his role as gullible but loveable PC Joe Penhale in ITV drama series Doc Martin.

Hugh continues: “My character, Maurice, has employed John’s, so he’s my baby to nurture. I think he’s possibly the only person Maurice could have convinced to do this - make of that what you will! I’m in charge, but also not really because it’s all very out of hand. Maurice also employs an opera singer, played by Lesley Garrett, to improve the performance, so she pops up every now and again too.”

Having made a name for himself as one half of a comedy double act with Steve Punt in the 1980s, Hugh has since enjoyed a varied career on television, radio and in the theatre.

“I like to mix it up and do a bit of everything, really - I’m greedy like that. The thing I enjoy most is generally not the thing I’m doing at the time. When I’m doing telly, I want to be on stage and vice versa. I’m very lucky, though, because I do like all of it. It’s good to have a varied career. If you were doing the same thing on telly year after year, it’d be quite tricky. It’s just about exercising all the different brain muscles, really.”

Even when a career choice doesn’t go according to plan, Hugh always manages to see the positives: “Actually, I’ve been quite lucky in that respect - there’s no job I regret taking. I think it’s an attitude-to-life thing, where even if things are terrible, I tend to look back and think it’s all been pretty interesting and entertaining.

“In terms of highlights, I’ve been even luckier. In my acting career, Outnumbered is the highlight because it was such incredible fun. Then The Now Show is great because being on radio is an incredibly privileged position. On telly you have to go through so many different layers of commissioning, editing, compliance and all the different people who look at it. But on radio, you can say something in a recording on the Thursday night and know that more than likely it’ll be broadcast the next day because there are fewer filters to get through. Also, you can just read your script rather than having to learn it - always handy! I’ve just done a second year of Fleabag for BBC Three, which is another highlight, but I do hope there are even more ahead of me.”

Hugh doesn’t spend too much time planning his career, preferring to see where life takes him: “Actors just want to carry on doing good stuff and pushing themselves to see where it goes, rather than thinking about a set destination. I just like life to take me on a ride and see what lies ahead. But for now, I’m happy to concentrate on The Messiah. The show was quite a success last time round, so I hope we can do that again.”

The Messiah shows at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from Thursday 18 to Saturday 27 October.