Venue: Birmingham Rep

Production Run: Fri 20 Oct - Sun 12 Nov 2017

Performance Reviewed: Wed 1 November (Press Night)

Things are really cool in Birmingham. Our City is full of joy...

Whilst the theatrical release of 2009’s Nativity! may not have quite set the Box Office alight, the festive Brit-flick has subsequently garnered itself quite the cult Christmastime following in recent years, much akin to how, say, Hocus Pocus found a whole new seasonal life for itself on home video and DVD at Halloween.

It isn’t without merit, either - Debbie Isitt’s charmingly whimsical fable of a struggling school attempting to put on a lavish musical production of the nativity remains delightfully British (set in the heart of the West Midlands, Coventry to be precise), buoyed by spirited performances with standout turns from its adorable young cast, and, for its modest budget at least, surprisingly ambitious.

The inevitable sequels followed, including 2014’s Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey?, but writer-director Issit’s most recent work on the brand has been this new stage adaptation of the original (and best) instalment in the franchise, co-produced and now premiering at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre before embarking on a UK-wide Christmas tour.

Whilst the very nature of Nativity! makes it a seemingly natural fit for such treatment, the real question was whether or not Issit and co. could retain the same festive warmth and joy in the transition from screen to stage.

Thankfully, everything that has endeared the original film to so many has been brilliantly replicated here; this is as faithful in both spirit and delivery an adaptation as you could hope for. The cast are impeccable, the writing is funny, warm and family-friendly (with a handful of more immediate references and gags squeezed in for good measure), and the adorable young talent frequently run away with the whole show.

It can’t be understated just how authentically the show recaptures the essence and heart of the film, whilst also adding in a whole extra layer of theatrical ‘sparkle and shine’, and the incomparable sense of immediacy that only theatre and live performance allows. Seeing Daniel Boys’ Mr Maddens interacting with the students of his class or expressing his frustration at the latest mayhem brought upon him by Mr Poppy (Simon Lipkin) will have those familiar with the film pinching themselves at its authenticity, not least of all because Boys’ performance is uncannily tuned to that of Martin Freeman’s in the original film (whilst finding room for some shade and nuance of his own).

For those not so familiar with the original, jaded primary school teacher Maddens (Boys) is in a perpetual state of hating Christmas after love of his life Jennifer (Sarah Earnshaw) left him to pursue her Hollywood dreams whilst simultaneously being critically panned for his own production of the nativity. Fast forward a few years, and when madcap new teaching assistant (Simon Lipkin’s Mr Poppy) turns his professional and personal life upside down, Maddens is forced to put on the most ambitious school nativity yet, all whilst trying to win back his former love and compete with arch-nemesis Gordon’s (Andy Brady) ultra-competitive private school efforts.

Oh, and apparently someone has promised that Hollywood will be coming to see the show.

It’s all delightfully silly and high-concept, and yet, somehow, the show manages to tread the same balance between being almost self-aware in its absurdity and excesses, whilst at the same time being utterly relatable and down-to-Earth.

As a musical adaptation, the catchy numbers from the film, including the likes of ‘Nazareth’ and ‘Sparkle and Shine’ are present and accounted for, with a couple getting some clever repurposing (see ‘Nazareth’ initially serving as an introduction to the central ‘St. Bernadettes’ school). Whilst some of the extra numbers drafted in to round the production out into a full-blown musical are in places a little rudimentary and scant (see for instances a slightly undercooked romantic duet midway through Act II which seems to end just as it’s getting started), and sequences such an extended pit-stop in Hollywood tend to overshoot themselves in ambition versus execution, in truth they are pleasant and fun enough distractions as the show gears up towards its real raison d’etre, the show-stopping extended finale, which is even more bombastic, joyous and satisfying here than it was on film. There’s a whippy sense of pace, too, with smooth transitions and the bounce of performances, writing and Isitt’s direction keeping the show skipping along energetically.

David Woodhead’s set and costume design are an explosion of colour and vibrancy, elevating the piece into a slightly more heightened (not to mention festive) palette, whilst Andrew Wright’s choreography makes strong, versatile use of a slightly smaller ensemble than most musicals, not to mention he does terrific, hilarious and extremely characterful work with each individual kid. Another similarity to the film, then; this is a production that can hone right down on each individual child performer and showcase them perfectly, and then, conversely, when it needs to, can go big and write itself large.

The linchpins to all this are undoubtedly the cast, and Isitt and her team have assembled some exquisite talent right across the age range. The calibre of performances from the entirety of the young cast (formed heavily of local Midlands & Black Country talent) is outstanding throughout; no mean feat when some of them are required to deadpan, emote, throw out sass, sing, dance and even twerk. To single out any of the uniformly-excellent young troupe would feel unfair, so needless to say there is an absolute explosion of talent on show across-the-board, and all amazingly without ever sacrificing the sense of everyday authenticity that is so pivotal to the show; these kids look, sound and feel like real, believable, excited and talented school kids, and not over-rehearsed drama school clones.

Whilst the young stars routinely steal the show, particularly come that audacious, irresistible finale, the adults are equally impressive. Jamie Chapman is glorious fun with every bit part and cameo he chews up, from a snide American receptionist to an over-enthused tour guide, but is perhaps most delicious as scathing local theatre critic Patrick Burns (with whom one noted no personal similarities whatsoever…). Andy Brady is equally campy fun as villain-of-the-piece Gordon, throwing himself into the pantomime boo-hissery of the role with real flair and relish, and quite literally rocking the socks off of the character’s own hysterically inappropriate take on King Herod. Jemma Churchill is a warm yet firm presence as Mrs Bevan, with a late speech plucking on the heartstrings with a particularly telling address to the audience, whilst Sarah Earnshaw is a warm, likeable presence and in fine voice as Jennifer (it’s just a shame we don’t hear more of it).

Boys, as mentioned, is an engaging and likeable lead, playing the straight man to Lipkin’s Mr Poppy with a real earnestness and empathy, which frees Lipkin up to go for broke. This stage incarnation of the film series’ MVP (Marc Wootton’s take on the Mr Poppy role being the only principle character to appear in all three films) is clearly cut from the same well-meaning yet oafish cloth as its film inspiration, but Lipkin definitely does a lot of new work here, too. There’s a slightly more naive and innocent edge to the character here, beautifully depicted in his opening number ‘Very First Day Of School’, but so too does Lipkin sink into the more dramatic and reflective moments of the character with a little more grit and pathos than Wootton’s slightly more one-note take managed. It’s a fantastic, barnstorming performance that fires on all cylinders and treads a very delicate balance between being wonderfully, boyishly over the top whilst also keeping the kids and adults both entertained and on side. Mr Poppy unshackled and painted large on stage could very easily have slipped into becoming a nuisance or frustration of a character. Instead, Lipkin judges the role perfectly and gives a funny, loveable treat of a performance that audiences of all ages will likely lap up.

In all, Nativity! the Musical gets right pretty much everything it should, and then some. It’s a big, dazzling treat of a show, but also one that showcases its talent in the same focused, authentic, warts-and-all charm and glory as the film. Also, like the film, it isn’t perfect; the rough edges occasionally show, but in many ways that’s precisely the point. Elsewhere, it absolutely sparkles (and shines). It just makes it all the more endearing and in-keeping with the whimsy and charm of the Nativity! franchise as a whole. It’s an experience which takes itself in directions and pushes buttons it could quite comfortably have gone nowhere near, with the fourth wall routinely broken, not least of all during a genuinely moving spot of audience participation that shan’t be spoiled here. The sheer unbridled joy and atmosphere of the piece as a whole is amongst the more electric and irrepressible you could hope for in an auditorium.

It’s a big, utterly lovable, gift-wrapped treat of an early Christmas present, a funny, heartwarming and family-friendly musical theatre experience in its own right, and by some measure one of the most uplifting, heart-warming and downright joyous evenings of theatre you could possibly ask Santa for.

RATING - ★★★★★

Tickets: 0121 236 4455​​​  / Official Website: click​