Writer and Director: Debbie Isitt
Songs: Nicky Ager and Debbie Isitt
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Back in 2009, an independent British Christmas film set in Coventry exploded onto cinema screens. It proved a smash hit and spawned two sequels. That film, of course, was Debbie Isitt’s Nativity!
Now, eight years later, it has undergone the transition to the stage as Nativity! The Musical, with additional songs but the same cheery storyline, opening in Birmingham prior to a short national tour ending in January. And so it is that Birmingham audiences trudging in the autumnal air of October find themselves surrounded by the wonder, glitter and stardust of Christmastime as they look through the eyes of the children of Mr Maddens’ class at St Bernadette’s Catholic Primary School – at least for a few hours.
Once upon a time, there were three best friends, Paul Maddens (Daniel Boys), Jennifer Lore (Sarah Earnshaw) and Gordon Shakespeare (Andy Brady). The boys trained as primary school teachers while Jennifer dreamt of being a film producer. Paul and Jennifer fell in love, much to the chagrin of Gordon, but that love was tested to breaking point when Jennifer left one Christmas to pursue her career in Hollywood.
Paul is stuck in a failing school while Gordon is Oakmoor Prep. The differences in their fortunes is made crystal clear as their respective Nativity plays are reviewed by Patrick Burns (Jamie Chapman), Gordon’s receiving five stars and multiple accolades, while Paul’s – well, isn’t as good.
Five years later and St Bernadette’s still can’t compete with Oakmoor. Desperate to get the school some good publicity, the head convinces Paul to lead the nativity again, providing him with the childlike Mr Poppy (Simon Lipkin) to assist.
But the loveable Mr Poppy is more childlike even than Paul’s class which leads to anarchy. When he overhears Paul’s empty boasts to Gordon that Jennifer is coming to see his nativity and bringing Hollywood to film it, Mr Poppy believes it and spreads the news to an excited city. Caught up in a lie that keeps growing, how can Paul make it right with a bunch of kids even he describes to the head as useless?
There is no denying that this is a feelgood story. There’s no subtlety – everything is gloriously over-the-top with a bright and garish set and a young cast with “cute” motched up to 11. The additional songs support that, especially in the first half .which is an enthusiastic and enjoyable romp as we wonder just what can go wrong next. After the interval, as the idol built on the sand of Paul’s lie begins to crumble, the mood turns more introspective and we are treated to some genuine poignancy, for example, as Paul is given the class’ letters to Santa to read. And it is barely a spoiler to say that Paul, Mr Poppy and his class come good in the end, putting on a spectacular performance in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral.
The adult cast plays their relatively two-dimensional rôles well – Boys is believable as the embittered Paul who finds his outlook softened by Lipkin’s Poppy. Lipkin, however, isn’t quite as childlike as his character needs to be: it seems as if Mr Poppy is himself playing a rôle rather than being genuinely childlike. Brady’s pompous Gordon is fine pantomime-villain stuff. And to its credit, Debbie Isitt’s production avoids the temptation to become too pantomimic, treading that fine line surefootedly. Deserving of special mention is Chapman’s supremely camp critic – it’s difficult to drag one’s eyes away from him when onstage.
The plot doesn’t bear too much close inspection and such questions as how the rundown St Bernadette’s is able suddenly to put on a glittering spectacle worthy of Busby Berkeley are perhaps best left unasked.
Nevertheless, the talent and enthusiasm of the children and the drive of the production make up for much. Yes, Nativity! The Musical is full of absurdities, but it does leave us feeling warm inside as we venture back into a greyer reality.
Runs until 12 November 2017 | Image: Richard Davenport