Review: Nativity! The Musical (Birmingham Repertory Theatre)

Debbie Isitt’s production opens in Birmingham ahead of a UK tour and a run at the London Eventim Apollo

Nativity The Musical is Christmas come early in so many ways. It’s a warm-hearted family show with lively performances, great songs, brilliant sets and lots of cheer and good will.

Written, directed and co-composed by Debbie Isitt, the festive musical is closely based on Isitt’s film Nativity! which was a huge cinema hit. Knowing she is on to a winner, Isitt hasn’t greatly deviated from the original film story which tells the tale of a failing Coventry primary school’s attempts to entice Hollywood to watch its school Nativity.

Working with co-composer Nicky Ager, Isitt has created a whole host of colourful new songs which carry the story along but she also features well-known numbers from the film including "Nazareth", "She’s the Brightest Star" and "One Night One Moment".

In the centre of the confusion is school teacher Mr Maddens whose lie to an old rival that a film producer from Hollywood is to visit his class’s Nativity sets a ball rolling which he cannot stop. Daniel Boys‘ Mr Madden is uptight, stressed and undervaluing his children until the Nativity gets underway and he’s forced to recognise that taking risks sometimes has surprisingly positive results.

Making him understand this, and pushing him into creating the show in the first place, is the crazed teaching assistant Mr Poppy. Played by Simon Lipkin, Mr Poppy is everyone’s favourite adult – he’s goofy, he’s a child at heart, he’s irresponsible and most of all he loves children and believes in them. Together the two embark on their aim of creating a special Nativity show – and ensuring Hollywood really does come to Coventry.

The cast of 27 children, who were all recruited in the West Midlands area, are packed full of enthusiasm and character. They are also incredibly versatile evoking plenty of laughs when they dress up as stars or Mary and Joseph but also carrying the pathos as they come together to sing to Father Christmas, asking him to make their dreams come true.

There are also some enjoyable adult characterisations with Jemma Churchill as feisty head teacher Mrs Bevan, Sarah Earnshaw as Mr Maddens’ long-lost love Jennifer and Jamie Chapman as a far from pleasant theatre reviewer from the local newspaper.

David Woodhead’s sets and costumes are bright, imaginative and full of sparkle. There’s plenty of festive fun packed in there with dancing Christmas trees, a moveable Nazareth and giant presents. And he’s supported by Duncan McLean’s projection design with also takes the audience to Hollywood and to the spire of Coventry Cathedral.

As the action progresses we’re all willing St Bernadette’s School and its bright-eyed children on to success.

Nativity! The Musical runs at Birminghan Rep to 12 November and then tours the UK.

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