Review: Sharnbrook Mill Theatre. Nativity The Musical.

Nativity The Musical

Sharnbrook Mill Theatre

30th November 2022

If you’re looking for a festive theatrical threat but panto isn’t your thing and you’re all Scrooged out, the Sharnbrook Mill Theatre have a seasonal offering that might be just the ticket.  Their fun production of Debbie Isitt’s ‘Nativity! The Musical’ (based on the 2009 film) is playing this week, and has all the Christmas cheer you could ask for.

At St Bernadette’s school in Coventry, seasonally-depressed teacher Paul Maddens (Jay Lucas) hates this time of year because his girlfriend Jennifer (Natalie Soroko) has left him to become a producer in Hollywood.  Paul also got publicly slated by critic Patrick Burns (Charlie Hammond) for his attempt at the school’s nativity play last year, so he tries his hardest to avoid anything to do with Christmas. However, desperate for something to revive some interest in the school, headteacher Mrs Bevan (Alex Goodbody) puts him in charge of this year’s production, and enlists her nephew Desmond Poppy (Ian Hammond-Stark) to help as his teaching assistant.  Unfortunately Desmond is at the same level of emotional maturity as the schoolchildren, and starts to push Paul to the brink of sanity.  In an attempt to make old rival Gordon Shakespeare (Tim Jackson-White) believe that his life isn’t a total mess, a white lie from an exasperated Paul soon turns into a huge problem as things get out of hand, and threaten both the nativity production and the future of the school.

Sharnbrook’s choice to do ‘Nativity! The Musical’ is a great one, as the musical works in a more intimate and simple space (we are supposed to be watching a primary school play in Coventry, after all), while being wonderfully seasonal and getting us all ready for the big day.  Sharnbrook Mill doesn’t boast the biggest of performance spaces, but they always use it to its maximum potential, as is the case again here, with director Cara Sigsworth staging the show on two levels and using various entrances and exits effectively.  The production is delivered well, although there are moments where the timing and transitions of scenes leave the audience unsure whether to applaud or not, making the show occasionally falter through no-one’s individual fault; the closing scene of Act 1 in particular seems to whimper out rather than properly conclude.  However, for a reasonably long show, it flies by and rarely feels ploddy, aside from when focus is pulled too far away from the children for too long.  The strongest material is undoubtedly when the children are front and centre, and even more so when they’re bouncing off their teachers (sometimes literally).  Isitt’s script is genuinely funny, retaining some of the material from the film while also including some more current references from the news which will raise a few chuckles from both small and big kids alike.  The musical numbers (backed by a live band) are tuneful and mostly strong, despite a couple of sappy ballads for the adult characters which could be stronger, although the Sharnbrook cast perform them well.

A range of local talent help to tell Isitt’s story well.  Jay Lucas does well as Paul Maddens, initially suitably sombre before livening up later thanks to his unlikely friendship with Ian Hammond-Stark’s Desmond.  Hammond-Stark will be a big hit with children in the audience who will love his boundless energy and likeable silliness, and he is great fun.  Hammond-Stark seems less comfortable when delivering the story’s narration to the audience, but when he cuts loose with the children and banters with Lucas, he really delivers.  Tim Jackson-Waite is always an excellent watch in Sharnbrook Mill’s productions, and again he’s terrific here as self-absorbed wannabe performer Gordon Shakespeare and delivers the “Herod Rock Opera” material really well. 

Also standing out is Charlie Hammond as critic Patrick Burns, although he’s even better as the sharp-tongued American receptionist with fantastic comic timing and facial expressions.

A professional production of ‘Nativity! The Musical’ is currently playing at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and while Sharnbrook Mill Theatre’s production may not have their budget, it absolutely matches their heart and sense of uplifting joy.  With characters to care about and a fantastic finale to leave you smiling, ‘Nativity! The Musical’ will thaw even the meanest Grinch.

‘Nativity The Musical’ runs at the Sharnbrook Mill Theatre until Saturday 3rd December 2022

Performance runtime 2 hours 40 minutes including interval

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