Review by Raphael Kohn
UK theatres are full of film-to-stage musical adaptations. Another one won’t hurt, right? The Birmingham Rep certainly thinks so, bringing back Nativity! The Musical for another Christmas season. Based on a 2009 movie written by Debbie Isitt and directed by Debbie Isitt comes this stage adaptation, written by Debbie Isitt, directed by Debbie Isitt and co-composed by Debbie Isitt (are you noticing a pattern here?), this stage adaptation explodes onto the stage with unexpected style, and makes a rather fantastic festive treat.
Set just down the road from Birmingham, over in Coventry, Nativity! largely follows the same story, pacing and structure as the 2009 film it is based on. The plot is really rather silly – a teacher, Mr Maddens (Billy Roberts), determined to outdo his friend in the local private school, tells a lie about a Hollywood producer coming to film his school nativity play. As the lie snowballs, and the chaos ensuing grows, Maddens is forced to take further and further steps to hide his lie and save face, including visiting Hollywood. And if you think this silliness would fit a movie, three sequels and a stage musical, you’d be right.
Isitt’s scriptwriting is incredibly funny, and with some jokes about current political affairs and a few adult jokes that went completely over the children in the audience’s heads, proves to make genuinely hilarious stage moments with the gags at a great rate. None of them fall flat like an underbaked yule log; they all land to great response from the audience. Isitt’s music, co-composed with Nicky Ager, is catchy, fun and energetic.
Featuring songs taken from the movie alongside a smattering of new original songs, the show is propelled onwards by a spectacular series of tunes, with Christmassy tinklings reminiscent of Christmas hits but a fundamentally Broadway-esque sound. However, it became a bit overwhelming in Act One when the high-energy spectacle didn’t drop for a second to provide a bit of tonal contrast and depth. Every single song in act one seemed to be loud dance numbers, which, while excellently performed, started to blur into each other without anything to break it up.
Perhaps it was where I was sitting, but Tom Marshall’s sound design blasted the audience with blisteringly loud amplification throughout, which of course, wasn’t helped by the constant high-energy music. My ears were ringing at the end of the show.
However, it’s the performances of the entire cast that stood out. Without a weak link anywhere to be seen, the whole cast performs with aplomb and vigour. The two leads, Billy Roberts as Mr Maddens and Ben Lancaster as Mr Poppy, bring the laughs aplenty while also singing excellently throughout. Matthew Rowland’s Gordon Shakespeare is pure stage camp, with a stage presence that fills the entire stage and beyond, elevating a character that risks becoming as one-dimensional as a gingerbread man to a genuinely brilliant villain.
The real stars of the show are, of course, the children. W.C. Fields once said, very wisely, ‘never work with children or animals’ – in his opinion, they would steal a scene or act unpredictably. The Birmingham Rep seemed to miss that memo, instead cramming the stage with children, all recruited from schools in the West Midlands and a few moments with a live dog on stage.
Of course, this show could simply not exist without schoolchildren, but the risk remains. It’s lucky, therefore, that these children are all performers of the highest standard, in tune with their singing and in sync with their dancing and even a brave pair who are dangled from the ceiling but take the challenge on like absolute pint-sized legends. As per Fields’ saying, they do of course steal the show, but one can hardly blame them for doing so with such excellent performances.
Praise must be given to Tim Mitchell’s lighting design, with stars lining the huge false arch at the front of the stage and fantastic, energetic lighting that perfectly matches the musical numbers. One moment where there’s no onstage lighting at all, and instead the audience takes on the responsibility of lighting the show (I’ll leave it to you to see the show and see what I mean with your own eyes!) took me by surprise, and was a lot of fun to take part in as an audience member.
I’m honestly surprised at how much I enjoyed Nativity! The Musical. Complete with excellent performances, particularly from a shockingly talented group of children, this rather lovely figgy pudding of a show warmed me up on a cold Birmingham night – and I expect it might do the same to you too. You simply can’t help but leave the theatre smiling from ear to ear after seeing it.
Nativity! The Musical plays at Birmingham Rep until 7th January 2023. Tickets from https://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/
Phoyos by Pamela Raith