From the author of Calendar Girls comes The Masker’s latest offering, set around the trials and tribulations faced by many primary school teachers: the staging of the annual Nativity play. Mrs Horrocks’ class of seven-year olds is about to perform their version at Flint Street Infant School for the proud mums and dads, social workers, relatives, ‘friends’ and Aunty, as the revelations of the children’s mainly dysfunctional lives are slowly revealed via alternative lyric sung carols observations. The children are played by adults, who later play their parents.
Squabbles arise when Gabriel wants to play Mary, the Star grumbles she’s not a proper star like they have at NASA, Herod/Joseph won’t stop waving to his mum and dad, the Narrator is desperate to know all his words and the subversive Innkeeper is determined to liven up the traditional script. And then Peter Crouch, the stick insect, escapes…
Originally conceived for television, Tim Firth’s study of infant power-politics is less a cute, end-of-term entertainment than a kindergarten version of The Godfather, complete with seething vendettas, emotional blackmail and severed heads. Expanded from the TV version, it’s Jesus who gets decapitated, the outcome of a long-running dispute over whose doll gets to play the Messiah and which family’s turn it is to have their child play Mary.
This is not an easy play to perform and direct and it was very brave of first time director Eric Petterson to take on such a multi-layered production; on the whole it succeeded with giving last night’s appreciative audience moments of poignancy together with the witty one-liners, based on real-life events, when eight-year old children are let loose onstage. The staging could have been a tad less confusing perhaps, as at times it was unclear what was being performed as part of the nativity play itself, and what was ‘offstage’; combined with what seemed to be unnecessary “dum dum dum” and lightning sound effects, a headteacher role when Mrs Horrocks herself is unseen (her presence only made aware of by tambourine shaking, which was very well done) and audience carol singing, I am not sure the play also needed this fourth wall breaking audience security.
Very much an ensemble piece, child play is not easy to convincingly portray. Proving great depth and understanding, however, was Brian Stansbridge as Tim the Narrator, perfectly encapsulating fears and worries. His second Act scene in particular, when he realises his Dad was not in the audience, was so moving, together with the third Act adult scene with an equally emotional/always on the edge Jane Russell as Mary. Maria McDade was suitably acid as Mary 2 rival/Gabriel, actively encouraging outcast non-speaking, and Jez Minns showed great stage presence with the difficult role of bully boy ‘darer’ Innkeeper.
Act 3 reveals the parents and how and why the children have behaved in a certain way, including Philip De Grouchy’s warm stuttering Wiseman Frankincense, revealed in adult form as something quite the opposite, and bingo-winning Wiseman Gold, Rachel Eynon.
This witty play is an interesting alternative to the usual Christmas fare and those who have tickets for this sold out run will find much to enjoy. You may never see a child’s Nativity Play in the same light again, especially after free mulled wine and mince pies!