Touring – reviewed at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
All Edinburgh Theatre’s Hugh Simpson went along to the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh to catch Nativity! The Musical.
Originally staged by the Birmingham Repertory Company, the production is based on the first in writer-director Debbie Isitt’s series of family Christmas films. The storyline – about Paul Maddens, a primary teacher whose story about his Hollywood producer ex-girlfriend coming to see his hapless charges’ Nativity play gets out of control – is a slight but ultimately endearing one. Certainly, there are many who have a soft spot for the first instalment who find the series of sequels considerably less palatable.
The stage show follows the plot of the film closely, with the title’s insistence that this is definitely The Musical! referring to the numbers that Isitt and co-composer Nicky Ager have added.
In truth, they don’t add a great deal. The best songs are those that are already in the Nativity play section of the movie, and the others contribute little more than extra running time – which is not always a blessing, especially at the beginning of the second half.
Making it a full-length musical does make for one obvious problem, and it is one that similar stories have had in the past. We are supposed to believe that the pupils of St Bernadette’s Catholic School, Coventry, are widely regarded as untalented and incapable of performing a musical; but from the off, the youngsters playing them (one of two teams rotating throughout the tour) are clearly brilliant at exactly that.
This is only a minor gripe, as the kids – all-singing, all-dancing, all-throwing themselves about the stage with ludicrously sustained energy levels – are the best thing about the show and worth the ticket price on their own. A group of more local youngsters, playing the snootier pupils from St Bernadette’s rival private school, are very nearly as good.
The rest of it, while not reaching such dizzy heights, is still a lot of fun. Scott Garnham’s Mr Maddens is a touchingly downtrodden figure with a tuneful voice. Local Lothians hero Ashleigh Gray’s huge voice adds colour and conviction to a couple of the more seemingly tacked-on musical numbers.
Andy Brady, as their former friend who is now a teacher at the prep school, is believably bitter and yet oddly sympathetic. The smaller roles are discharged with wit and conviction, while the ensemble sing and dance up a storm even in the silliest of routines.
There is a ‘throw everything at the stage and see what sticks’ feel to some of the staging, which largely works in terms of Andrew Wright’s choreography, David Woodhead’s design and Isitt’s expansive direction. However, Tom Marshall’s sound design is not quite so successful, with excess of volume sometimes obscuring the words, which does not always show MD Andrew Griffiths’ tight band in the best light.
Isitt’s fondness for improvisation shows through in some references that have clearly been added since the production’s debut, and a couple of remarks that are clearly ad-libs.
These come largely from Simon Lipkin as Mr Poppy, the classroom assistant who has not so much stayed in touch with his inner child as completely failed to ever locate his outer adult.
Lipkin is a hugely talented and versatile performer who makes an immediate connection with the audience, but his performance once again is a weak link in forging any kind of coherent narrative. Lipkin does now feature in the movies, but not as this Mr Poppy – instead he plays the other Mr Poppy, the brother of this one (do keep up) who was originally played by Marc Wootton.
Both characters are deliberately annoying, but in different ways. Wootton’s characterisation was thoroughly peculiar and believable as a misfit. Lipkin instead comes across as an overly bumptious children’s TV presenter, and therefore (like those omni-talented youngsters) it is hardly a surprise that he takes to the stage as if he was born to be there.
Jo Brand’s turn as the drama critic who somewhat implausibly spends her time reviewing primary school Nativities is amusing enough, although a critic who delights in rubbishing others’ efforts (to say nothing of performers obsessed with star ratings) surely cannot be drawn from life.
There are themes here about how the education system sets some up to fail, and how the arts are becoming dominated by the more socially privileged, but they are buried in a production that is shamelessly schmaltzy and manipulatively sentimental. It knows it as well, to the extent that it is not above bringing on a cute dog at regular intervals.
If it wasn’t nearly Christmas it would never get away with it. But, under the circumstances, it can be excused, especially when this is a high-octane, utterly feelgood show that features a whole host of future stars.
Running time 2 hours 25 minutes including one interval
Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson Street EH8 9FT
Wednesday 28 November – Sunday 2 December 2018
Evenings Wed – Sat: 7.30 pm; Sun: 5 pm.
Matinees Thu and Sat 2.30 pm, Sun 1 pm.
Information and tickets: Book here.
Nativity! The Musical on tour:
Wed 28 Nov – Sun 2 Dec
0131 529 6000
Wed 5 – Sat 8 Dec
0844 871 7649
11 – 15 Dec
0844 871 3020
19 – 31 Dec
0844 249 1000