Comedian Hugh sees the funny side of festive story

Hugh Dennis, Lesley Garrett and John Marquez in The Messiah
Hugh Dennis, Lesley Garrett and John Marquez in The Messiah

Comedian and actor Hugh Dennis is one of the stars of The Messiah, a new festive comedy about a travelling theatre troupe of two actors and an opera singer who arrive by camel to portray the greatest story ever told.

The Outnumbered and Fleabag star plays actor Maurice Rose, appearing alongside John Marquez as unpredictable Ronald Bream and Doncaster’s very own diva, Lesley Garrett, as opera singer Leonora Fflyte.

Here, Hugh talks about  the show, his career and connections to Sheffield.

How would you describe Maurice Rose?

He’s sort of lost really, a middle-aged man who just wants the world to be a better place. He also has this urge to be very theatrical and a great actor and he’s got a message that he wants to get out there, which is that we should all be nice to each other and life shouldn’t be quite so nasty.

What’s the dynamic between Maurice and Ronald?

I think Ronald is the only person Maurice has ever convinced to do one of his plays. There’s antagonism because he doesn’t quite do things the way Maurice wants them done. Ronald’s excited about it whereas Maurice is precise and wants it done in a very particular way.

Every role brings challenges. What are the challenges here?

It’s very physical and precise at points and if you’re meant to get things wrong it’s about getting things wrong in a way that makes them look wrong. It’s a very intricate comedy piece.

Beyond that, the challenge is of doing a tour. I’ve gotten very used, over the last 20 years, to going and doing a day on a TV show over the course of a week, say.

Have you had to master any new skills?

There’s singing in it, but again the joy of it is not having to master it too well because it’s two men who are not very good.

How is it being back on stage after more than two decades?

It’s nice. It’s slightly terrifying because of everything that goes with it, like the fact there’s no edit and it’s different every time. But it’s very exciting getting on stage.  

What have been your career highlights?

[Laughs] My favourite jobs are generally the ones I’m not doing at the time. But I really enjoyed doing Outnumbered and in the last couple of years I’ve done Fleabag with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, which is a great show to be on. I like all those jobs where you go in and you think ‘This is great’ and there’s a light touch.

Is this your first Nativity-themed job?

It is, yes, although I’ve been to lots. My dad was a bishop - or he is a bishop, in fact, but a retired one - so that period of the year was significant for me growing up because there were so many things you went to. You went to the Nativity and the Christingle and the Nine Lessons And Carols, then on Christmas Day or midnight you’d go to church.

Do you have any links to Sheffield?

Sheffield is where my grandfather was born and until the mid-30s a lot of my father’s family worked on the South Yorkshire coalfield. There was a pit called Kiveton and they all worked there. I suppose my grandfather was actually the first person not to work there.

My dad thinks of himself as a Yorkshireman but having been born in Northamptonshire I don’t think I can claim the same, although my brother was born in Leeds and we are from Yorkshire originally.

The Messiah is at Sheffield Lyceum from November 5 to 10. Lesley Garrett does not appear on November 8. Tickets: www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk