Review: "Nativity! The Musical" - U.K. Tour

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Lewis Baird

  • United Kingdom Critic

Nine years ago, “Nativity!” the movie hit cinemas, and families up and down the UK loved it! It was a hilarious British comedy, which featured some brilliant kids trying to put on the best Nativity they could with their teacher Mr Maddens, and his newly appointed teaching assistant, Mr Poppy. Now nine years on, the stage musical adaption is on a tour of the UK, and is currently playing at the beautiful Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. The question is, does this festive adaptation work?

The story is the same as the film, where there is a rivalry between two teachers who are ex-friends, Mr Maddens and Mr Shakespeare, on who can do the best school nativity. Mr Maddens makes up a little fibb, where he claims Hollywood is coming to see the children’s Nativity to possibly make a film adaption of it. This lie is taken completely out of hand thanks to Mr Poppy, and basically chaos erupts.

Simon Lipkin is a hysterical delight as Mr Poppy, of course this is to be expected since he is taking over the role in the 4th installment of the film series. His comical timing was brilliant, mainly due to the humongous amount of energy that was beaming from him, while delivering the dialogue perfectly. His scenes with the kids of the cast are so heartwarming. Mainly it’s because it’s clear that there is a good repour between Simon and the kid members of the cast, where there is a good bit of banter clearly on and offstage. Simon is definitely a huge element of why this show is so fun.

Scott Garnham is superb as Mr Maddens, Scott definitely delivers in terms of giving a great acting performance during the serious moments of the musical. Of course, he had very big shoes to fill, considering Mr Maddens was originally played by the great Martin Freeman, Scott gives a great portrayal and I think pretty much matches Martin’s quality of performance. Scott also has a great comic chemistry with Simon, as there is the perfect balance of seriousness and ridiculousness which is expected of the duo from anyone who has seen the film. However, at points his performance was a bit flat just as it felt unenergized, which stood out due to the other actors putting their all into their performance, but overall, his portrayal of Mr Maddens is thoroughly enjoyed.

Ashleigh Gray as Jennifer Lore is great, vocally she is the strongest singer in the cast. Ashleigh’s acting was pretty good, but there isn’t a lot of room for development of this character, the don’t really get to see much of Ashleigh, it felt like the character Jennifer was more there just to sing the complex, grown-up numbers of the musical, this is definitely more a creative team issue. Ashleigh does however use these moments effectively, so the little time she on stage is a treat. Andy Brady is brilliant as Mr Shakespeare, the over the top teacher really works well on stage, especially in the almost Trunchbull like style he presents the character in confrontational moments with the Oakmoor pupils. Andy’s portrayal its perhaps even better than the original characterisation within the film by Jason Watkins.

The Critic is played by Jo Brand, the much-respected comedian sadly does not deliver her best performance here. This is more a cameo of a role; however, it’s clear from the moment Brand is on stage, that she’s out of her comfort zone. When it becomes apparent that her singing talent is next to none, it does make you question why she has been cast in this musical, or why her songs were not turned into just dialogue with no musical interlude, which is the best way to describe the moments she features in, dialogue over music. It feels like they have just hired her for a name on the tour. Jo Brand can act, so the audience were expecting to see this musical highlight that, rather than push her way out of her comfort zone. Jemma Churchill supplies a strong portrayal of Mrs Bevan the headteacher, who is pretty much on the brink of a mental breakdown. It is a rather brief part; however, the audience go on the journey of disbelief with this character and Jemma gives us a strong woman on her own journey, the end goal is a great pay off for the audience, especially with the way Jemma performs it.

The adult ensemble in the form of Jamie Chapman, Andy Barke, Gary Davis, Oscar Conlon-Morrey, Helena Pipe, Ashleigh Graham and Kade Ferraiolo, they supply superb vocal, physical and comic skill as they transform into several characters brilliantly.

And now onto the REAL stars of the show (literally), the kids cast, specifically Bethlehem! Joshua Milard-Lloyd, Jasmine McKenna, Demi Delord, Joseph Duffy, Evie Bennell-Low, Amy-Louise Mulhall, Kheiri Isaac-Osmani, Betsy Jiggins, Marlie Love, Nicholas Vakis and Aston Sidwell all were fabulous as the pupils of St Bernadettes! They supplied fantastic singing, dancing and acting, each member of the ensemble bringing their own quirk into their character. They make the show wild, funny and make the stage a brighter place. A fantastic cast of talented children.

Oh, and we cannot forget the cutest member of the cast, Pepper the dog! She played Cracker, Mr Madden’s dog. She is a very timid dog for all the drama she needs to deal with.

In terms of set it is a simplistic, yet highly effective, it mainly has a star design featured throughout, however when it comes to the actual nativity David Woodhead (set and costume designer) and Time Mitchell (Lighting Designer) work brilliantly to create one hell of a spectacle which compliments the music.

Debbie Isitt directed, plus wrote this production, she has in fact written and directed all the films in the “Nativity!” franchise. In terms of the musical, it is a very fun and lovable show which definitely has the same brilliant formula as the movie, it even supplied some more colour which was missing from the original movie. Debbie also composed the music, collaborating with Nicky Ager. Music wise, this musical definitely features some great uplifting tracks such as “Hollywood Are Coming”. “Nazareth”, “One Night, One Moment” and of course, “Sparkle and Shine”.  All of this is delivered at a very high standard by Andrew Griffiths, the musical director and his band. However, in terms of other music within this production, most of them are mediocre at best, they are too generic and easily forgettable. It’s the story that definitely drives this production, there is so much comedy, with hysterical dialogue packed into this show, you are guaranteed to be smiling throughout.

This musical is not the best touring production currently, however, it is without a doubt, the BEST Christmas musical touring, the comedy and storyline is fantastic, the cast featured are glorious and the kid cast members make the show. If you are looking for a pantomime substitute or a musical to see during the festive season, then definitely check out this uplifting seasonal production.

Go to the Nativity! The Musical website to check out venues and pricing for tickets.

Playing Edinburgh Festival Theatre 28th November- 2nd December.