NATIVITY! The Musical
The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 25th October, 2017
It’s too early to think about Christmas, I mutter as I take my seat, along with other curmudgeonly thoughts. Surely this production is ill-timed, we haven’t had Hallowe’en or Guy Fawkes yet… blah blah.
And then it begins. A bright and brash opening number with people dressed as elves and reindeer and there’s even a singing, dancing Christmas tree… but before I can utter so much as a ‘Bah, humbug!’ the infectious spirit of the show takes over and I find I can settle back and enjoy it.
It’s the tale of rival schools, vying for a five-star review in the local paper for their annual nativity show. The private school (aka the villains) led by Andy Brady as Mr Shakespeare go to all sorts of distasteful lengths, culminating in a rock opera about King Herod. The good guys, bottom of the league Saint Bernadette’s, underdog written all over them, have a reluctant director in the form of Mr Maddens (Daniel Boys) and his irrepressible idiot of a teaching assistant, Mr Poppy (Simon Lipkin). A rumour goes around that a Hollywood producer (Maddens’s ex, Jennifer) is coming to see the show, and things rapidly spiral out of control.
Daniel Boys is excellent as the somewhat downtrodden Maddens, giving enough of a flavour of Martin Freeman to satisfy the expectations of fans of the film, while making the part his own. Simon Lipkin is irresistible as Poppy – you’d punch him in real life, but on stage he is our narrator, our clown, and our emotional temperature gauge. Andy Brady is clearly enjoying himself as the preposterous Mr Shakespeare and Jemma Churchill’s beleaguered head teacher, Mrs Bevan, combines passion for the job with humour and heart. I enjoy the acidic observations of critic Patrick Burns (Jamie Chapman). Sarah Earnshaw’s searing vocals as lost love Jennifer are a welcome counterpoint to the wall of sound coming from the kids.
The kids. The RSC has a lot to answer for. Its production of Matilda set the bar staggeringly high for what we expect from children on the professional stage. And this lot deliver – outstandingly so. Working as an ensemble or in solo moments, they all demonstrate commitment and talent. Director Debbie Isitt (who also wrote and co-composed the show) must have the patience of a schoolful of primary teachers! The stage is vibrant with energy and charm, sailing on the right side of mawkishness and sentimentality.
Laugh out loud funny and bursting with life, Nativity! manages to warm the heart of even this old grinch. It’s one present you’ll be glad to open early.