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Sparkling *and* Shining - Nativity! The Musical

Nativity! The Musical at the Bridge House Theatre, Warwick, 8 to 28 December 2023

Review by David Court.

As the music industry shows us, it’s easy to make a song aimed at the Christmas market – it’s more difficult to make one that sticks and that remains relevant and memorable in the years to come. It’s the same with films – each year sees countless attempts, but for every Hallmark style Christmas romance or festive related comedy that gets made, few stand out. ‘Gremlins’, ‘A Muppet Christmas Carol’ and ‘Die Hard’ (yeah, it is a Christmas movie - argue about it in the comments) are rare landmarks in an overcrowded marketplace.

2009’s ‘Nativity!’, however, stands out amongst the pack. It helped that it starred Martin Freeman – whose star was definitely in the ascendance at the time. Also, a standout performance from Marc Wootton as the energetic childlike teaching assistant Mr Poppy gives the film a wondrous sense of anarchy – if you’ve never caught Wootton in his Channel 4 series ‘My New Best Friend’, I’d strongly recommend it.

There’s also a particular festive soft spot for the film in Coventry, with much of it having been filmed here, and the movie itself premiering at our Skydome Arena. My wife always points out with great excitement whenever the movie is shown that the movie’s St. Bernadette’s school is her own primary school of Holy Family. As a film series it was definitely a case of diminishing returns, but the first stands out as a solid piece of Christmas entertainment with memorable songs and performances.

An eager audience awaiting curtain up - Photograph by David Court

The stage musical was written by Debbie Isitt, based on her film of the same name. Essentially the tale of rivalry between two schools (which more earnest critics than me could compare to a metaphor for class struggle, seeing an enthusiastic yet underdog state school compete against a snooty private school), we follow teacher Paul Maddens in his attempts to come out on top for once in a competition to produce the best Nativity play. Of course, said attempts are riddled with disaster – including a little white lie which threatens to derail all of their endeavours.

There was a packed house on the Saturday evening at the delightfully cosy Bridge House Theatre, and the show started as it meant to go on – noisy, bombastic and fun. For those familiar with the film, the storyline – as you’d expect – doesn’t deviate dramatically from what you know, but there are certainly more songs.

The story is ultimately about a broken trinity of friendship; George Attwell Gerhards plays Paul, a man shattered by the ending of his relationship with Jennifer (Natalie Turner), a woman whose ambition sends her to Hollywood. The third party is Gordon Shakespeare (Matthew James Hinchliffe), a man seemingly driven by one-upmanship. All are thoroughly solid performances – George and Natalie convince as a couple separated by both ambition and the Atlantic, and Matthew is clearly relishing his role as the more pantomimic of the trio – all snarling theatrical villainy, doing all but wearing a top hat and twirling a moustache.

However, as those of you who know the film will attest to, the entire show is held together by the anarchic, naive, and endearing Mr Poppy – the teaching assistant who, like Michael Landon in ‘Highway to Heaven’ (or ‘The Littlest Hobo’, for the slightly younger readers) is tasked with existing to rectify a terrible situation. In the hands of a lesser actor, Poppy could be an irritating annoyance you wouldn’t want to share a drink with, let alone spend two hours in the theatre in his presence, but Aiden Cutler is pitch perfect. He’s a veritable force of nature, and is trusted with some of the most memorable lines of the evening. I’m not sure if any of the evening was ad-libbed, but his performance felt so natural I wouldn’t be surprised either way.

Coventrians may recognise a few things from this Staging set-up! - Photograph by David Court

But, ultimately, Nativity is all about the kids – and boy, do they sparkle and shine. This is said by no means to detract from the strength of the kids' performances, but there’s a certain ramshackle joy in a traditional nativity, and it’s portrayed well here. The kids in this – thoroughly excellent, by the way – felt like real kids, not the practiced performances of note-perfect stage school children. I’d rather my performances felt natural, and not, well – performative, and the kids here thoroughly impress.

There are a few surprises throughout – including a gimmick to introduce the interval that I found particularly clever and a Peter Pan moment that nearly brought the house down – and the joyous triumphant close of the show was met with well-deserved applause. Both my wife and I agreed that it’s been one of the most fun nights of theatre we’ve witnessed in the longest time – and it’s a worthy adaption of a new Christmas staple, expanded for the stage that make it more than worth two hours of your time.

There’s a prominent role in the show for a critic, played majestically by Anne McColl (channeling Edna Mode from Disney’s ‘The Incredibles’) and a recurring theme of Paul’s last Nativity play being given two stars by her in the Coventry Evening Telegraph. It’s no spoiler to say that Paul’s new play fares better – it’s never established whether Paul's new extravaganza gets her coveted five stars, but – given the potential talent on stage in Warwick this evening – there were certainly more than five stars at the Bridge House Theatre tonight.

‘Nativity! The Musical’ runs right up until the end of 2023, and tickets are available here. For a look behind the scenes with Ann's excellent preview of the show, click here.


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