Just like a wise man, I came late to Nativity, only getting round to watching Debbie Isitt’s film a couple of years ago but oh, how it won me over, feeling like an instant Christmas classic. (The less said about the sequel and the shocking third film, the better). So it was little surprise to hear that Isitt was adapting her film for the stage, in the form of Nativity! The Musical. And though I have once again embraced my inner Scrooge and won’t be reviewing much, if any, festive fare this year, I couldn’t resist the chance to sparkle and shine.
And I’m glad I did, even if it is a full month too early to be even thinking of anything Christmassy. Nativity remains a beautifully heart-warming story and if anything, has even more of a feel-good factor about it through all the liveness of this production. The story centres on Coventry primary school St Bernadette’s, trying to escape Ofsted-imposed special measures by beating a rival school to putting on the best Christmas show which, through the most tenuous of links, might just attract Hollywood interest and get turned into a film.
It’s a bit of stuff and nonsense really but done with as much charm as it is here, it’s like sinking into a nice mug of hot chocolate with marshmallows melted on the top. The cheeky chirpiness of the child performers, one of three teams of nine local schoolchildren, is irresistible as they badger their teacher (Daniel Boys’ rather reserved Mr Maddens) into directing them and respond to the inimitable Mr Poppy’s enthusiasm (Simon Lipkin perfectly cast as the most unlikely of teaching assistants) to find their (sometimes deeply) hidden talents.
Isitt serves as director and this has its strengths and its weaknesses. Little has been done to amend the plot which is fine, but does mean that Maddens’ LA-headed girlfriend Jennifer remains under-utilised and a firmer hand at the tiller might usefully have trimmed 20 minutes or so from the slightly indulgent running time. But she also marshals her resources to the beautifully judged telling of her story. Andrew Wright’s joyous choreography is an explosion of homespun fun and David Woodhead’s imaginative design looks a treat for a touring show.
Musically, Isitt and co-composer Nicky Ager err on the cute and poppy side, which works just fine in this context. It’s the songs from the film that remain the strongest though – the twinkling energy of ‘Sparkle and Shine’, the shimmering loveliness of ‘One Night, One Moment’. It’s all enough to even make you forgive the surely unfair caricature of a harsh theatre reviewer who turns up late on ?. Great fun.