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.
Simon Lipkin (Photo: Richard Davenport)
Leave a comment | tags: Andy Brady, Daniel Boys, Debbie Isitt, Jamie Chapman, Jemma Churchill, Nativity! The Musical, review, Sarah Earnshaw, Simon Lipkin, The REP Birmingham, theatre | posted in Theatre Review
HOARD FESTIVAL (2nd Visit)
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Thursday 16th July, 2015
An eagerly anticipated return visit to the New Vic to catch more of the excellent festival of work inspired by the Staffordshire Hoard. Before the double bill in the main house, I catch another couple of ‘table plays’ in the bar.
In Hwaet! by Tom Wells, Elizabeth Elvin plays a woman in cod-Anglo Saxon garb, a mother preparing a surprise party for her daughter who is leaving to study archaeology at university. It’s an amusing monologue – the woman has a very funny turn of phrase – but running through it is a rich vein of emotion that is ever-present in Elvin’s eyes, behind the smiles and the laughter. Lovely stuff.
Sara Pascoe’s Hoarder features a young Anglo Saxon widow who monitors squirrels so she can dig up the nuts that hide away. She is a bit squirrel-like herself and she seeks the stash of gold her late husband buried – she even asks a couple of people around the table to open their bags or empty their pockets. It’s an energised performance from Gwawr Loader, tightly wound and delivered with conviction. Fab.
On to the main double bill.
UNEARTHED by Theresa Heskins
The New Vic’s resident director Theresa Heskins appears (here portrayed by Bryonie Pritchard) to explain how she put the play together. She interviewed a range of people connected with the discovery and then edited their words together to create the narrative. And so the actors speak verbatim words of real-life people. The style mixes naturalism with documentary elements. Pritchard withdraws, substituting us, the audience, as Theresa; the characters now address us, as narrators. This is a fascinating account of an endlessly fascinating story. We meet Terry whose metal detector found the treasure (David Nellist in bluff, amusing tones) and the museum experts whose minds were blown away when he took it to them. Also included is famous TV historian Michael Wood (invoked by the wonderful Adam Morris) who speculates about the nature and the origins of the find. It cracks along at a fair pace; names are projected on the floor to help us keep track of who is whom and images of some of the pieces appear and spread across the stage. There isn’t much in terms of on-stage action but that’s not the point. The documentary style engages us and holds us throughout. As facts and opinions are unearthed, our imagination is stimulated and our sense of wonder activated. Pure gold.
THE GIFT by Jemma Kennedy
This is a story of an Anglo Saxon community thrown into conflict by the return of the menfolk from battle. They bring with them a bag of gold from the recent convert to Christianity, their King. He wants to enlist them to help build a cathedral at Lichfield. The men are up for it; the women not so much. In this society, the women have equal say in decisions and ownership of property – but it’s no egalitarian utopia: they keep bondsmen and slaves to do their bidding.
Jemma Churchill impresses as the formidable matriarchal Wilda, determined to stick to their own ways and values, contrasted sharply with the meek Welsh girl, their slave Cain (Gwawr Loader). David Semark wears the garb and his chieftain’s attitude as though he was born to them, while brash,blokish Beorn (David Kirkbride) shows us lad culture stretches across the centuries. Romayne Andrews is appealing as young man Teon, who is sweet on the slave girl, and Johnson Willis adds to his portrayal of Dudda the bondsman with some sweet lyre-playing. Paula James is ‘wise woman’ Rowena, who interprets dreams and conducts rituals (they are a superstitious bunch) but the rot of Christianity is spreading, infecting hearts and minds, even within this very tribe.
It’s a story of the end of a world. Kennedy’s script has an air of authenticity about it and the production benefits from Lis Evans’s design work in terms of the set and the costumes. Gemma Fairlie’s direction keeps proceedings clear, but the piece seems a little too earnest to me. When Teon elopes with Cain and marries her in a Christian ceremony, she is merely swapping one kind of slavery for another: the new religion diminishes the status of women in society – we’re still working through the consequences.
There is still plenty more going on at the New Vic that I haven’t seen. Like the treasure of the hoard itself, or Anglo Saxon society, I can only glimpse tantalising parts with my understanding incomplete, and the whole thing unknowable.
David Nellist as Terry, the world’s luckiest detectorist
Leave a comment | tags: Adam Morris, Bryonie Pritchard, David Kirkbride, David Nellist, David Semark, Elizabeth Elvin, Gemma Fairlie, Gwawr Loader, Hoard Festival, Hoarder, Hwaet!, Jemma Churchill, Jemma Kennedy, Johnson Willis, Lis Evans, Michael Wood, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Paula James, review, Sara Pascoe, Staffordshire Hoard, The Gift, Theresa Heskins, Tom Wells, Unearthed | posted in Theatre Review