Pick Me Up Theatre in Nativity! The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, November 29, 30 and December 2, 7.30pm; December 1, 2pm and 7pm; December 3, 12pm and 4pm. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York
THIS is the festive turkey and stuffing in Pick Me Up Theatre’s sandwich of three shows in a matter of autumnal months. First, Matilda The Musical Jr at Theatre@41, Monkgate, in September, now Nativity! The Musical, and lastly Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound Of Music, back at Monkgate, only a fortnight after Nativity’s finale.
As a flyer in the Nativity! programme pronounces, no fewer than six productions are in Pick Me Up’s engagement diary, testament to Robert Readman’s restless pursuit of bringing musicals and more (Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None) to York’s stages.
He made the canny decision of holding open auditions for all this season’s shows simultaneously in June, “so we could get to know the children”, he reasoned.
This is a hugely beneficial experience for his young charges, who are at the heart of all three productions. Matilda The Musical Jr had a wild energy, made great play of words and letters and revelled in the rush and thrill of being unruly in school yet disciplined in choreography and musical numbers on stage.
The school year now reaches the Nativity! season, the climax to the Michaelmas term, in Debbie Isitt and Nicky Ager’s musical adaptation of their hit 2009 British comedy, the first in a frantic franchise of four festive family films that rather fizzled out as the DVD sales nevertheless piled up.
Readman had directed the 2011 York premiere of Tim Firth’s Flint Street Nativity, in truth a wittier work that definitely would have met with the approval of Nativity’s arch, flouncing critic Patrick Burns.
Readman, who never performed in a Nativity play in his schooldays, was delighted to receive the rights thumbs-up for Nativity!, a show marked with “British humour, children being themselves, pathos and daftness, and a romantic, happy end,” he says.
Birmingham Rep, by the way, has picked Isitt’s musical for its Christmas production in the Second City, no doubt drawn to those very qualities so necessary for a family show. Readman serves them all with customary exuberance, to the point of his regularly heard laugh being the loudest in the stalls.
BAFTA Award-winning Isitt’s musical takes the form of a Nativity play within a play, framing her stage adaptation around her original story of flustered, by-the-book teacher Mr Maddens (Stuart Piper) and his unconventional, idiot savant new assistant Mr Poppy (Jack Hooper) struggling with unpredictable children, unruly animals and an unimpressed head mistress, Mrs Bevan (Alison Taylor) when striving to stage St Bernadette’s Roman Catholic primary school’s musical version of the Nativity in Coventry.
Seeking to outdo the bells-and-whistles show mounted at the neighbouring posh school by his scornful ex-childhood friend, Gordon Shakespeare (Stuart Hutchinson), Maddens ups the ante by boasting that Jennifer Lore (Toni Feetenby), his still-missed ex-girlfriend, now working as a Hollywood producer, will be coming to the show with a view to turning it into a film.
Unfortunately, Maddens is lying: he and Jennifer don’t talk any more (and so might she be lying too?!). Doubly unfortunate, Mr Poppy, Mrs Bevan and the local media’s enthusiasm only makes matters worse.
Piper’s Mr Maddens is suitably earnest, self-destructively driven, but, crucially, caring too and a romantic at heart, albeit a deflated one. His beastly bête noir, fellow company debutant Hutchinson’s Gordon Shakespeare, is obsessive, supercilious, priggish, dislikeable but agreeably amusing. Their battle is a highlight, one to be savoured by lovers of long-running theatre wars.
Pick Me Up’s third newcomer among the principals, Jack Hooper, is the show’s five-star turn, reminiscent of both Jack Black’s substitute teacher Dewey Finn in School Of Rock and “silly billy” pantomime characters.
Ignoring the old adage never to act with children or animals, Hooper bonds effervescently with both, his irrepressible Mr Poppy bringing out the best in the excitable pupils, stirring their imaginations with his own inner child, and playing puppy to Cracker the dog. To be serious for a moment, Mr Poppy is also a beacon for why the arts should always matter in schools, encouraging the unconventional among the conventional, as much among teachers as pupils.
Contemplating retirement, Alison Taylor’s Mrs Bevan, a head teacher enervated after so many years of struggle, learns her lessons in life just in time.
Toni Feetenby’s Jennifer, torn between career ambitions and love, is the outstanding singer in a show that complements favourites from the films, such as One Night One Moment and She’s The Brightest Star, with new Christmas-spirited Isitt-Ager additions for the stage version.
The ensemble centrepiece Sparkle And Shine does exactly that, the stand-out in Lesley Hill’s choreography that puts the ensemble emphasis on fun and characterful expression rather more than precision, in the tradition of school Nativity plays, as it happens.
Reaching for the sandwich once more, has Robert Readman bitten off more than he can chew by directing and designing three shows in quick succession, working with children in each of them to boot?!
No, there is plenty to enjoy here, whether theatrical fun and games, school tropes or the climactic bonkers Nativity play in the Coventry cathedral ruin. Not least Jonah Haig’s Ollie and especially Beau Lettin’s Star on press night in the lead children’s roles, amid a scant regard for the Coventry accent among most of the cast, a smattering of technical frustrations and a staccato rhythm to the second half’s scenes, however.
The sound is problematic on occasion, particularly when Faateh Sohail’s Angel Gabriel takes to the air, with wings, yes, but insufficient volume. Hopefully that hitch has been ironed out, but a better sound balance may be more difficult to achieve among so many children.
Sam Johnson leads the band through George Dyer’s orchestrations with a flourish; a bewigged Rosy Rowley is seen in a new light as Mr Parker, a cynical Hollywood bigwig, and your reviewer wouldn’t dare criticise Johnny Holbek’s flamboyant turn as the waspish local theatre critic. Five stars, darling, five stars.