COVID cancelled last winter’s edition of A Nativity for York and did its worst to scupper this year’s return after a two-year absence.
Nine out of 16 cast members had tested positive during rehearsals, one actor’s all-important negative reading on the day of the dress rehearsal ensuring clearance for take-off.
Divine intervention, you might say, and the arrival of this new-born production under the guiding light of Alan Heaven’s direction is indeed something of a miraculous conception. The very subject of A Nativity, of course.
Note the title: A Nativity for York. Heaven’s production is the essence of community theatre, rooted in York’s unrivalled mediaeval Cycle of Mystery Plays. From the streets, those plays move indoors, onto the stone slabs of the ever-convivial Spurriergate Centre, where mulled wine and mince pies spice up the arrival scene.
Writer, director and designer Heaven has constructed a backdrop as if from a builders’ guild – ladders, a plank, dust sheets, work bench – affording a mezzanine level for the Angel Gabriel, and providing the edifice for drapes of changing colours: blue to signify Anastasia Crook’s Mary; red for Nick Jones’s ruthless Herod; black for the hellish scene of Herod’s slaughter of the babes.
Even a clothes line pops up to emphasise the Mystery Plays’ meeting point between the utilitarian and the work of the Lord.
Storytelling theatre lies at the heart of Heaven’s Nativity, a familiar story but here told with fresh imagination, shards of humour, especially for Michael Maybridge’s disbelieving, weary Joseph and the shepherds, peppered with bursts of traditional song and communal dance, to the accompaniment of arrangements by The Bertie Set, played by Diane Heaven (keyboards) and Petra Wade (recorders).
Alice Melton’s all-in-flowing-white Angel Gabriel has a shimmering radiance and even a hint of Shakespeare’s Puck when she rouses Joseph from his slumbers with a nudge in the back.
Crook’s Mary – the role every (competitive) girl wanted to play in the school Nativity Play – is played with virtue, calm purpose and awe-struck duty by Crook, with Sally Maybridge’s Anna often by her side.
Mark Comer’s Symeon is central to the lovely opening scene under an umbrella as the company spins around him in a whirl of ribbons. Harold Mozley, Daniiel Zavalniuk and Rachel Curnow’s earnest Kings contrast with the country-bumpkin airs of James Tyler and Effie Warboys, sheep under her arm, as they lead the audience in a participatory folk song that needed more clarity on Wednesday to make out what exactly chorus line was when urged to join in.
Jones’s Herod, dapper in his waistcoat and coat but devil-red in his butchery, has a sparring relationship with his truculent son (Tristan Heaven), in the tradition of theatrical fraternal frictions. Their scenes heighten the drama with a Shakespearean edge.
In keeping with Heaven’s renderings of the Last Judgement in wagon plays on the streets of York, the visual peak is the Massacre of the Innocents under Herod’s orders, a scene of terror and horror as the mothers’ screams pierce the night chill. Where earlier the ribbons signified joyful news, now they represent the guts of slaughtered children.
As Alan Heaven puts it: “Our production is built on juxtapositions of light and dark, joy and despair, community and isolation as we witness the depths of human suffering alongside the hope brough by the birth of Jesus.”
Words that echo through the streets of today, Christmas lights shining out against a backdrop of financial struggles, strikes, freezing temperatures and an ever greater need for hope and re-birth.
Tickets are on sale at £10, students and under 18s £6, on 01904 623568, at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or in person from the Theatre Royal box office.