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Review: All the Angels: Handel and the First Messiah (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

Nick Drake's play about Handel's Messiah returns to the candle-lit space at Shakespeare's Globe

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

After a short run last year, Nick Drake's play about the formidable German composer Handel – who lived most of his life as a British citizen – returns to the warm and festive atmosphere of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. It's some excellent combining – choral music, candlelight and Christmas.

When the music kicks in, these three things come together in All the Angels to make a heady brew. Drake focuses on Handel's time creating one of his finest works – Messiah, which first opened in Dublin in 1742 and was partly performed, not by a professional soprano, but by a young, disgraced actress. The story begins with the moment Handel is forced to rehearse the rapturous and intensely religious piece for the first time above a Chester pub (oh the irony). The narrative continues to his arrival in Dublin and his subsequent work with singer and actress Susannah Cibber – who had just scandalised the whole of London with a juicy affair and a messy time in the courts with her husband.

Staged with an ensemble choir, which includes members of The Sixteen – one of the foremost UK choirs of today – the music is very much a lead role in All the Angels. Sections from Messiah drift in and out of the storyline, adding to, but also distracting from, the plot. These moments, with the dim light and the excellent voices, are transporting.

The piece itself struggles a little, and feels fragmentary in the sections without music. Drake also tries to include several peripheral characters whose narratives aren't fully fleshed out. The odd figure of Crazy Crow, a music porter, acts as narrator and is played beautifully by Sean Campion. Campion also plays several of the other characters – including William Cavendish and Messiah's librettist Charles Jennens. But the moments where Campion plays a figment of Handel's imagination, in scenes where the beginnings of illness take hold of the composer, get a little confusing. They feel superfluous - spelling out what the music could easily tell us.

Still, David Horovitch is superb as Handel – with an excellent German accent that rolls the rs and elongates the vowels perfectly. Drake's play also has much poetry and some humour: "Don't talk about the opera!" shouts Handel repeatedly, after a not-spoken about failure in London. His remarks on being stuck in Chester over the River Dee – "the most unmusical of rivers" are also very funny. Kelly Price as Susannah Cibber is mesmerising to watch as at first her character struggles with Messiah's non-theatrical form and then becomes entirely at one with the music.

It is the song, really, which makes this production. It fills the small Sam Wanamaker, infusing the space with light, love and heart-enriching sound. It is an absolute treat to hear it in such a space, the gold from the backdrop glints and shimmers in the glow of candles as the sound lifts the heart and soul, just as Handel intended.

All the Angels runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 12 February.

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