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

Philip Parr gives fresh refugee perspective to Nativity for York at Spurriergate Centre

Angels in town: York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust cast members for A Nativity for York stand outside the Spurriergate Centre, York. Picture: John Saunders

A NATIVITY for York is in its final week of rehearsals before premiering from December 12 to 15 at the Spurriergate Centre, Spurriergate, York.

Directed by Philip Parr and produced by York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust (YMPST), this hour-long production with live music is based on the surviving manuscript of the medieval York Mystery Plays in the British Library, while being infused with a contemporary resonance to “remind us that this story is not so very far from our own modern-day experience”.

From the 14th to 16th centuries, episodes from the Bible were presented on wagons pulled through the streets of York by the City Guilds of Craftsmen, celebrating the Feast of Corpus Christi in early summer. Next week’s show draws text from eight of the 48 short plays, presented in a modernised version of a northern dialect of Middle English, so audiences can follow the action while retaining the all-important sounds of the language.

Ged Murray and Jenna Drury in rehearsal for A Nativity for York. Picture: Nick Ansell

Telling the biblical story from the creation of the world, through the life of Jesus Christ, to the Day of Judgement, and grounded in human experience, the Mystery Plays were “made by the people for the people”. In next week’s new Nativity for York, the celebration of the birth of Jesus – the Christmas miracle – is juxtaposed 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,” says Parr. “Joseph, Mary and their baby are really no different from any other refugees: fleeing their country, persecution and the threat of death. 

“To tell the story within this setting, and to ask questions of what happens now, we hope will engage audiences to take that question away with them.”

Parr’s production – his first as artistic director for YMPST – draws on the long Mystery Plays tradition of community performance and storytelling, utilising York actors, singers and musicians.

In elevated company: The Angels ascend to the heights in a York shop as they promote A Nativity for York. Picture: John Saunders

YMPST chair Linda Terry says: “Our community cast bring a wealth of experiences, commitment and talent to the work, which has made creating this production incredibly powerful.

“As we move into the Spurriergate Centre, we’re looking forward to presenting our first Nativity for York to residents and visitors. It’s moving, thought provoking and full of beautiful music.”

Director Philip Parr is a widely experienced director of theatre, opera and festivals who has worked both in Britain and internationally, establishing a reputation for directing large-scale community productions, chiefly working as artistic director of Parrabbola, collaborating with communities across Europe.

His theatre work has ranged from main-house productions to small-scale rural touring shows, including working at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, the Bayerisches Staatsoper and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as well as being founder and artistic director of Spitalfields Opera.

A Nativity for York cast members gather at a rehearsal at Holy Trinity Church, Micklegate, York. Picture: John Saunders

A founding member of the European Shakespeare Festivals network, he has directed the Swaledale Festival and Bath Shakespeare Festival and is director of the York International Shakespeare Festival.

Directing YMPST’s first solo production, Parr says: “Creating a new Nativity cycle for York is both a wonderful artistic challenge and an enormous responsibility. I’m excited to have been given that responsibility.”

Performances start at 6.30pm on December 12 and 13; 12 noon, 2pm and 6.30pm, December 14, and 12 noon and 2pm, December 15. Tickets cost £10, under 16s £6, on 01904 623568, at or in person from the Theatre Royal box office.

Charles Hutchinson