I expect if you really wanted to delve into it historically you could find a fair amount of plays and musicals that have been expressly or partially written with the creative idea of having adult actors play little children on stage. The perennially popular pantomime and play versions of Peter Pan are a great example. Other examples from recent stage plays are Blood Brothers, Groan Ups, My Neighbour Totoro, Blue Remembered Hills and even Daisy Pulls it Off. My own father, who knew nothing about the theatre except that the original Derby Playhouse on Sacheverel Street was near to his favourite Ladbrokes bookies, once harshly dismissed the craft of acting as merely ‘play acting’ or mucking about on stage. Playing is a big part of children growing up and learning to express themselves and to socialise. Simple plays or opportunities to sing and dance help enormously whatever the source, even if it is the school’s annual nativity play. Childhood rarely occurs, however, without any bumps and scrapes, amongst the joys and the incredible highs of possibly being cast as the first donkey or Mary in said nativity. Being cast in the school nativity can bring about latent jealousies and worse in vulnerable children unused to such volatile states of being with the added pressure to perform in front of parents and teachers. As a nine year-old I was cast as the gold-bearing King Melchior that visits the baby Jesus along with the two other ‘Wise Men’, King Frank Incense and King Murmur. I forgot to turn up on the big night and the task went to another boy called Andrew who was quickly robed in a clean eiderdown and a spiky cardboard crown that ‘allegedly’ fell over his sticky-out ears. In his eagerness to please he dropped his papier-mâché gold bars on Jesus’ head – twice and continuously farted nervous farts in the direction of a gagging boy cast as Joseph. But that is a whole other story… Over to The Flint Street Nativity written by Tim Firth and performed this week by The Lace Market Theatre.
Directed by David Dunford with a set designed by Alison Holland this amateur production of The Flint Street Nativity features the following cast – Mary (Danielle Hall), Shepherd (Clare Moss), Wise Gold (Michelle Arscott), Gabriel (Caitlin Bowers), Angel (Roisin Kelly), Star/Ass (Jamie Goodliffe), Joseph/Herod (Aaron Connelly), Wise Frankincense (Richard Fife), Narrator (Joseph Smith) and Innkeeper (James Whitby). Lighting is by Allan Green, the sound by Philip Hogarth and the side stage keyboards are played by Emma Kerrison.
Tim Firth’s play with music and songs has been updated in The Lace Market Theatre version, and has Nottinghamshire locations and references jigsawed into the script which works on the whole and even causes a few extra giggles in an evening of some general hilarity. The Flint Street Nativity is quite a short two-act play being less than two hours long including an interval. Yet you do leave the theatre feeling that you have got your monies worth from some committed performances and some really funny comic moments and priceless non sequiturs. As for Firth getting the balance between comedy and poignancy right is up for debate. The section with the ‘adult’ parents gathering over Post Nativity drinks in the classroom seems thinner in dramatic content and intent and a tad rushed and clichéd. Whether the play is scripted to give a silent presence to the invisible teacher Miss Horrocks by flash flooding the stage in a sudden wash of red lights I cannot say but this is how it works in this production. Once you know – you know. Initially I find it confusing and wonder if one of the naughtier Flint Street kids has snuck into the lighting box and is playing havoc with the controls. Likewise, I find the decision to allow one of the actors to play a child with a real beard somewhat anomalous. Even though their performance is good I find this facial inclusion is stretching our willingness to suspend our disbelief. A plastic baby Jesus though – that’s fine.
For an adult to become a seven-year-old on stage relies on the quality of their acting and imaginative talent to convince and both the actors and their audiences share one vital state of mind between them for the play to succeed – the previously stated – willing suspension of disbelief. We know that the performers aren’t really little kids and part of the comedy-drama fun is for them to behave and react as children already giving us glimpses into how they perceive their world and may continue to perceive the world as they grow up. Mistakes and all. The end result should be a blend of sweet innocence, fledgling confidence or over-confidence and a junior version of survival of the fittest plus pratfalls and a Christmas stocking full of healthy humour. Think “I’m Seven -Get Me Outta Here’. This Lace Market Theatre production finds its successes in the comedy and songs and has some excellent performances throughout. Director David Dunford has done an excellent job with the stage being used to full advantage and the many exits and entrances all done with tremendous pace and often comic effect.
The Flint Street Nativity runs at The Lace Market Theatre until Saturday 17th December. Some performances are selling out quicker than the rooms at various inns in Bethlehem so book early to avoid disappointment.