Review: A Nativity for York, Spurriergate Centre, York

Babe in arms: Raqhael Harte’s Mary with the infant Jesus. Picture: John Saunders

A Nativity for York, York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, Spurriergate Centre, Spurriergate, York, until Sunday

A NATIVITY for York is a new solo venture for the York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, an hour-long festive first directed by Philip Parr.

The City Guilds wagons have parked up for the winter; Corpus Christi feast day is but a summer memory, and the mediaeval Mystery Plays have moved indoors for four nights and days of Christmas shows.

Glad tidings of great joy: Sally Maybridge’s Angel Gabriel in A Nativity for York. Picture: John Saunders

Thursday’s audience is sitting at tables, sipping hot drinks, the community cast placed among them from the start, to emerge one by one into their roles, with the company’s musicians and singers to the back of the church building. This positioning is a reminder that the Mystery Plays are of the people, for the people, by the people; always were, always will be.

This Nativity play is not one for tea-towel headgear, tons of tinsel, awkward children and extraneous animals in the stable. Instead, Parr’s production knits together text from eight of the 48 plays in the York cycle, here presented in a “northern dialect of Middle English origins but modernised”. Modernised might be stretching it: this is still the street language of the plays of yore, where “mickle” means “a large amount” or “much”.

Stable relationship: Raqhael Harte’s Mary and Chris Pomfrett’s Joseph with the new-born Jesus. Picture: John Saunders

What is modern is the presence of rucksacks and backpacks, a pram, an M&S bag, high-street clothes and Raqhael Harte’s Mary in jeans and hooded winter coat. That said, Las Vegas Elvis would love the cut of two of the Kings’ outfits, regal white for Wilma Edwards and dazzling blue for Stephanie Walker, an irreverent comment maybe, but their countenance could not be more reverent.

Costume designer Filip Gesse balances past and present, the everyday and the holy, robes and jackets in equal number, linking the plays’ history with today. Just as the deeply affecting storytelling has resonance with our need for a new guiding light, new hope, new beginnings (disconnected, it would seem, from the Godless political event going on that divisive, decisive day).

Wise move: Stephanie Walker’s King seeks the infant Jesus. Picture: John Saunders

Parr’s Nativity for York juxtaposes the Christmas miracle with the story of an ordinary couple caught up in events beyond their control that will change their lives forever. 

“The Nativity is probably a story that much of our audience will know, but we wanted to give it a fresh, new and contemporary perspective,” he says. “Joseph, Mary and their baby are really no different from any other refugees: fleeing their country, persecution and the threat of death.” Thought for the day, indeed.

Bearing her gift: Jenna Drury’s Shepherd with Raqhael Harte’s Mary and Jesus. Picture: John Saunders

Sally Maybridge’s Angel Gabriel looks down from above in radiant white, while cast members move among the full house, sometimes in circular motions as the Kings (completed by Ben Turvill) and the Shepherds (Ged Murray, Michael Maybridge and Jenna Drury) make their journeys to seek out the new-born king, wrapped up in Mary’s arms.

All the while, Chris Pomfrett’s Joseph is protective, concerned, dutiful, specs propped on his head in his few calm, reflective moments, fearful at others.

The weight of responsibility: Chris Pomfrett’s Joseph must take Mary and Jesus to a safe place after learning of Herod’s decree to put all infant males to death. Picture: John Saunders

Parr, artistic director of Parrabola and driving force behind the York International Shakespeare Festival, not only directs with suitable gravitas and awareness of making the fullest spectacle of the church setting, but also has written and arranged the beautiful music. Instrumental or choral, accompanied or a cappella, it sounds wonderful as it rises within these bare walls.

Thursday and tonight’s performances have sold out, but seats are available for shows at 12 noon, 2pm and 6.30pm tomorrow (December 14), and 12 noon and 2pm on Sunday. Rejoice at this news and book now on 01904 623568, at or from the Theatre Royal box office in person.

Charles Hutchinson