”Nativity! The Musical” at Birmingham Rep – review

Ben Lancaster, Billy Roberts and the company of Nativity! The Musical
Ben Lancaster, Billy Roberts and the company of Nativity! The Musical
© Pamela Raith

It’s back with a bang – Debbie Isitt’s Nativity! The Musical is just what we all need to cheer us up this Christmas. With a great story, packed full of character, some hilarious moments of craziness and a host of brilliant songs, Nativity! is a star production.

Based on Isitt’s hit film, the plot follows the adventures of St Bernadette’s Primary School as the youngsters attempt to stage a Christmas show. School teacher Mr Maddens hates the festive season but is given the job of producing the class nativity. And when his madcap new teaching assistant Mr Poppy overhears Mr Maddens telling a small fib to a former friend-turned-rival that a Hollywood producer is coming to see the show, he spills the beans and soon the whole of Coventry awaits the result. With the city, the school, and indeed the audience rooting for the children and their teachers, what can go wrong?

Ben Lancaster is Mr Poppy, a man who still thinks he is a child. On his first day at work, he joins the other pupils in the playground and clearly has no intention of being a traditional teaching assistant. But, while he drives Mr Maddens wild, it is Mr Poppy who believes in the children and carries Maddens along with him. Every schoolchild would love to have a Mr Poppy in their class.

Billy Roberts has just the right level of frustration as Mr Maddens. He is torn between wanting the children to succeed and a fatalism that neither he nor they can ever achieve anything amazing. It takes a bit of Christmas magic dust to change his mind.

The villain of the piece comes in the shape of former friend and now rival school play producer Mr Shakespeare who works at the super-posh Oakmoor School. Matthew Rowland is like a pantomime baddie he is so mean – and he also gives a great performance as a glam rock King Herod.

Daisy Steere plays Jennifer, the woman who broke Mr Maddens’ heart to head to Hollywood and who, of course because this is a feel-good festive show, returns to save the day.

In many ways, the real heart of the show is the cast of youngsters playing the various children who all give their performances 110 per cent. They are funny, full of energy and enthusiasm, and seem to be having the best time of their lives on the stage. Special mention goes to tiny tot Matilda Flower whose crowning moment as the Star of Bethlehem has the entire audience going ‘aaah’.

Isitt’s direction is spot on. The show never pauses for a moment and hits us with every emotion under the sun so that we are all so invested in these children. We are on our feet cheering when the nativity finally goes on. Together with co-composer Nicky Ager, she has created a soundtrack of catchy songs including “Nazareth”, “Good News”, “She’s The Brightest Star”, “Sparkle and Shine”, and the tear-jerker “Dear Father Christmas”.

David Woodhead’s colourful designs are packed full of imagination – from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral to dancing Christmas trees and presents large enough to hide characters in.

Nativity! The Musical was first staged at The Rep five years ago and this is a welcome return. It’s a Christmas gift of a musical which will delight adults and children alike.