Nativity! The Musical – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Reviewer: Mattie Bagnall

Music: Nicky Ager and Debbie Isitt

Writer and Director: Debbie Isitt

It’s November. The people of Birmingham might be forgiven if the decorations aren’t up and those letters to Santa haven’t hit the post boxes yet. It’s a debate that repeats itself year after year in every workplace up and down the country. ‘When can we start celebrating Christmas?’ The answer at the REP is a resounding now!

Nativity! is the critically acclaimed film which hit our screens back in 2009. Debbie Isitt’s heart-warming storyline captured what Christmas is all about, but in recent years Nativity! has been turbo-charged into a mesmerising musical which has the potential to tempt even the most stubborn grinches to dig out their flashing, festive jumpers.

Nativity! The Musical mixes together a cocktail of absurdity. It almost shouldn’t work, but it does. Be prepared for an avalanche of joyous, festive fun for the whole family; all packed into a two-hour musical full of up-to-date one-liners, deliberately questionable dancing, and the most eccentric costumes you can think of. Most absurd of all though – the prospect of Hollywood coming to Coventry.

Mr Maddens (Billy Roberts) has been forced against his will to direct the nativity at St Bernadette’s. The last time he did so, the school received their most damning review yet: a minus-two-star verdict which is met with more panic and desperation by the school than an interrogation from Ofsted. This fear is compounded when Mr Maddens traps himself into a web of lies in trying to outdo the pompous Mr Shakespeare (Matthew Rowland) who is in charge of maintaining the impeccably high production standards that his, Mr Shakespeare’s, own school, Oakmoor, has become renowned for. Rowland does an excellent job portraying the typical villain for the audience to frown upon.

Mr Poppy (Ben Lancaster) has been appointed as Maddens’ new teaching assistant to give St Bernadette’s the cutting edge it needs to outperform its rival school. This support quickly turns into the world’s biggest obstacle course as every breath Mr Poppy takes gives Maddens another problem to contend with. Lancaster captures the child-like nature intended for Mr Poppy’s role, although some of the gags can feel excessive at times as certain moments begin to cross the border with a traditional pantomime.

The biggest problem for Mr Maddens is his lonely, broken heart. The love of his life has ruined his Christmas, abandoning him for her Hollywood dream in the States. Daisy Steere (as Jennifer) has a sublime voice for a character which is underused throughout.

At the heart of this production though is the organised, creative performances of all of the children involved who make up the school pupils of St Bernadette’s and Oakmoor. The contrast between the well-disciplined private school and the hilariously chaotic St Bernadette’s is captured well. Special mention must go to Matilda Flower as the Star, who orchestrates the audience in a chorus of ‘aww’ throughout.

The ending of the production showcases the spontaneous nativity musical that St Bernadette’s has spent so long preparing for. David Woodhead has designed a spectacular backdrop of Coventry Cathedral which is the setting for the grand finale. There should also be a notable mention of the creativity behind asking the audience to use their mobile phone lights to illuminate the stage when the power is deliberately cut as part of the scene.

The final outcome lives up to the wonderful absurdity that we see from the first minute to the last, but did Hollywood really come to Coventry? Put the Argos catalogue down and book your tickets for this brilliant evening of family festive fun to find out.

Runs Until 7 January 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Festive family fun!

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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