Well, boys and girls, it is currently late November 2018 but this grumpy old Scrooge like reviewer is already feeling the Christmas spirit big time due to a splendid re-viewing of the fabulously colourful touring production of Nativity the Musical! Yay!
In fact we have awarded this very special, totally fun, utterly bright, very very fab and surprisingly emotional stage extravaganza FIVE of our brand new Christmas styled stars. Aren’t they great?
Saying that, we totally adore Nativity the Musical and leave the Nottingham Theatre Royal with big wintry beaming smiles on our faces. Mince pies in August couldn’t make us feel any better! One small criticism would be that the Coventry theatre critic portrayed on stage is not a true representation of critics and reviewers in the region. Many are much more nutty and savage with their star allocations, saving ourselves at East Midlands Theatre, of course, who are perfectly sane and utterly fair (ahem) in our reviews.
Debbie Isitt, writer and director of this piece plus, Nicky Ager and choreographer Andrew Wright have been continually developing Nativity the Musical prior to, and since, it’s first performance at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in October 2017. Coventry based, the piece has a special resonance in the West Midlands but the way it is written and brought up to date means it fits in any of its venues countrywide. You just need a willingness to be stupidly happy to enjoy it.
The set and costumes are terrific (designer David Woodhead) and the lighting design by Tim Mitchell gives us expected and unexpected drama and a great dollop of humour. Tom Marshall’s sound design really gives depth and poignancy to the piece as do the songs complemented by George Dyer’s musical supervision and orchestration.
Then there is the cast! What a cast! Without doubt they are all brilliant from lead performer to any of the multi- talented kids in the show. The local children really help lift the energies of the constantly slick and evolving musical and blend supremely well with the rest of the professionals. Any Mums and Dads in the audience tonight must be bursting with ‘sparkle and shiny’ pride.
And wowser! That little dog Cracker, who is so brilliantly played by stage dog Pepper. Such body control and well co-ordinated rhythmic wagging of her little stubby tail. That doggy face could tell a million heartfelt stories yet she specifically holds back and just releases those achingly poignant canine bursts of suppressed feeling pertinent to the telling of Nativity the Musical. We feel her longing for her mistress to return – her need for a doggy pee – the agonies of stage fright and dealing with too tight a grip by the actors. Pepper has specifically asked that we don’t mention the regular kissing on the head by the actors. Ooops too late! Pepper is a real star! Surely she will be up for a Barkfta in the 2019 awards. If not, this crazy reviewer will actively protest by eating a hundredweight of Chum and announce his intentions in The Stage and The
Dogging Times. The Doggy Times.
Anyway, this reviewer is getting particularity over-excited and unnaturally silly and must seriously concentrate. This is solemn stuff. Like Hamlet with Christmas trees and wet pants. For goodness sake Philip Lowe! You are losing credibility! The leads! Tell them about the leads. No – not the dog leads you idiot – the main actors in the show. We are so sorry. So very sorry dear readers. Our reviews are normally so sensible. We win awards for them after all. And continue…
Mr Poppy, played so energetically by Simon Lipkin has got to be the man of the evening! Lipkin is a tour de force on the Nottingham Theatre Royal stage tonight and within a few seconds of introducing the story and characters he has the audience in the palm of his hand and continues to hold them there quite happily for the entirety of the show even when Mr Poppy is unusually down at heel. Every comedian needs a straight guy (hard to find in the theatre) and Scott Garnham’s beautifully measured and delightfully sung performance as Mr Maddens is that very person. Together they work theatre magic! Garnham has a superb singing voice and gives us a very sympathetic version of the frustrated and romantically out of luck teacher, Mr Madden.
Andy Brady’s Mr Shakespeare has strong a feel of US actor John Lithgoe about him ( a sincere compliment) in his more manic scenes and he proves the perfectly demented and wildly jealous Oakmoor drama teacher foil against the innocent nativity creating team at the impoverished Catholic, St Bernadette’s School. Brady is hilarious in Herod The Rock Opera that has familiar strangled guitar similarities to Jesus Christ Superstar. Odd that.
We also love Ashleigh Gray who plays Jennifer Lore – girlfriend of Mr Maddens, and fellow loving cuddler of Cracker the dog. Lore has a beautiful singing voice and really invests in her role. We are actually sympathetic to the outcome of her revealed position as she tries to find her artistic place in Hollywood.
Jemma Churchill is both ebullient and vulnerable as head mistress Mrs Bevan and the rest of the adult ensemble, Jamie Chapman, Andy Barke, Gary Davis, Oscar Conlon- Morrey, Helena Pipe, Ashleigh Graham and Kade Ferraiolo blend beautifully with the kids and, like in all the very best and well loved productions, are an utter joy to watch. In a smaller but vital role, popular actress Charlie Brooks plays the Hollywood Producer. In fact this production is so good that one would love to come back again and again and feast on the many nuances comedic and dramatic for a deeper and more emotional understanding of the work. In short – it is ‘Sparkle and Shine’ brilliant! If you don’t get to see the glorious Nativity the Musical we would honestly say that you have missed out on one of the sublimely entertaining moments in popular theatre history. Yes, we loved it that much!
Many children ache to be involved in an early school play, in particular the younger ones. This opportunity often occurs in the, fight for the best roles, school nativity. This reviewer’s friend Lucy, has two young girls and her youngest daughter Elora is about to play Mary in their school production. The innocent child has confessed to her Mum that she doesn’t really know who Mary is/was. How sweet. But surely it is the taking part and the building of character and confidence that counts. Blessed wisdom will come later in life. We wish Elora all the best in her first ever stage endeavour and as they sing in the Nativity the Musical song ‘She’s The Brightest Star’, “It’s like living in some kind of dream…” Indeed it is. Indeed it is.
This reviewer’s own early 1960s experience of being involved in school nativity was as one of the Three Kings. Natural bearing, a clean tea towel and cute blonde curly hair secured the role. All went well except that he never turned up on the night. Another boy became the tea towel wearing third king bearing the gift of cheap, past their sell by date, mildewed chocolates to baby Jesus modelled by a plastic friend of Sindy the over dressed doll. The next year this reviewer was dramatically regulated to the part of the cramped middle position of Puff The Magic Dragon. Baby Jesus was most confused, but not as much as the Derby council estate audience as our Bethlehem became a land called Honahlee – complete with mist. Hollywood never came to see this remarkable papier maché and toxic glue based production, either. Shame.
Nativity The Musical runs at Nottingham Theatre Royal until 25th November 2018.
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Phil Lowe is a member of UK Theatre.