PICK Me Up Theatre director Readman never appeared in a Nativity play in his North Yorkshire schooldays.
“My first appearance on stage was as an animal in Snow White,” says Robert, whose production of Nativity! The Musical opens at the Grand Opera House, York, tomorrow (24/11/2022).
“My brother Mark was King Herod in Bubwith Church in 1969! The first time I got close to a Nativity was when I directed the York premiere of Tim Firth’s Flint Street Nativity at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre in 2011.”
How he is at the helm of Debbie Isitt and Nicky Ager’s musical, adapted for the stage by the creator of the British franchise of four family Christmas films released between 2009 and 2018.
“I was looking for a Christmas show as our Grand Opera House slot falls pre-panto,” says Robert. “Scott Garnham [Malton-born actor, singer and producer] played Mr Maddens in the professional tour and West End run, and I knew that if Scott had loved it, we would too. I also love the film!
“I managed to gain the rights in April 2021. Browsing on the Music Theatre International website, I applied, assuming it would be a ‘No’ because it had been on a professional tour, and so I was very surprised and delighted to get a ‘Yes’!”
The musical is based on the original film. “All the gags are there and the grand finale in the bombed Coventry Cathedral ruins,” says Robert, introducing the story of St Bernadette’s School attempting to mount a musical version of a Nativity play. “The only trouble is, teacher Mr Maddens has promised the children that a Hollywood producer is coming to see the show to turn it into a film.”
Against this backdrop, Mr Maddens, his crazy teaching assistant Mr Poppy and the unruly children struggle to make everyone’s Christmas wish of starring in the Nativity play come true.
“Nativity! is loaded with British humour, kids being themselves, pathos and daftness, and there’s a romantic happy end,” says Robert.
“The music is very catchy and totally suits the essence of the story. As Debbie Isitt directed the film, she had a natural understanding of what style was required, and the melodies add a whole new element to the script, based very closely to the screenplay. I just love the music.”
Nativity! The Musical features all the sing-a-long favourites from the film series, such as Sparkle And Shine, Nazareth, One Night One Moment and She’s The Brightest Star.
“They’re complemented by a whole host of new songs filled with the spirit of Christmas,” says Robert. “Mr Poppy gets a solo, the ensemble is given songs, and the romance between Mr Maddens and Jennifer Lore is told in music.”
Joined in the production team by musical director Sam Johnson and choreographer Lesley Hill, Robert is directing a cast that combines faces both new and familiar to Pick Me Up audiences.
Making their company debuts will be Stuart Piper as Mr Maddens, Stuart Hutchinson as Gordon Shakespeare and Jack Hooper as Desmond Poppy, while the returnees will include Toni Feetenby as Jennifer Lore, Jonny Holbek as The Critic ( Patrick Burns) and Alison Taylor as Mrs Bevan. Look out too for Rhian Wells’s Miss Rye, Rosy Rowley’s Mr Parker (yes, Mr Parker), Kelly Stocker’s Receptionist and Martin Rowley’s Lord Mayor,
Alongside the principal children’s roles of Ollie (Jonah Haig), Star (Beau Lettin) and the Angel Gabriel (Faatah Sohail) will be Team Shakespeare and Team Poppy, comprising 38 children between them.
“We held open auditions for three shows, September’s Matilda The Musical Jr, Nativity! and next month’s The Sound Of Music all at the same time in June, so we could get to know the children,” says Robert.
“Many of them are in all three shows, and it’s proved a very successful method as the children have become friends, and working with them is a pleasure because they’re relaxed and happy to be in rehearsal. I’ve also been blessed with excellent choreographers, Lesley and her assistants Emily and Lily Walker, and with parents willing to give support.”
Coming next for York company Pick Me Up will be Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound Of Music at Theatre@41, from December 16 to 30. Looking ahead to 2023, “we’ll be celebrating the 60th anniversary of Joan Littlewood’s musical Oh What A Lovely War in April and Agatha Christie’s thriller And Then There Were None in September, both at Theatre@41, Monkgate,” says Robert.
“For Halloween, we’ll be doing a Grand Opera House double bill of Young Frankenstein and The Worst Witch. Christmas will bring Nicholas Nickelby to Monkgate for its York premiere.”
Pick Me Up Theatre in Nativity! The Musical, at Grand Opera House, York, November 24, 25, 26, 29 and 30, December 2, 7.30pm; November 26, 2.30pm; November 27, 3pm; December 1, 2pm, 7pm; December 3, 12pm, 4pm. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York
Copyright of The Press, York