Theatre Review: Nativity: The Musical, Empire Theatre, Liverpool

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Image Source: ATG

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Musical
Genre: Comedy
Date: October 31 2018
Location: Empire Theatre, Liverpool

It seemed very unusual to watch a Christmas-themed show on Halloween night, but that only made for a more unique experience in seeing Nativity: The Musical live. The
ghouls of All Hallow’s Eve may have been out to cause some unexpected drama earlier in the day, as an elevator malfunction resulted in a significant delay and a
question mark as to whether the show would go ahead. Despite the distress caused by this incident, the cast soldiered on, and I’m glad they did, because this was a
truly fun show to watch.

If you’ve seen the movie, then the plot will probably be very familiar; if not, though, it was still an easy story to follow. We’re introduced early on to three
friends, who forged their bond in childhood and continued through to adulthood, all with their own interest in performing drama. But then came splits: Paul Maddens
(Scott Garnham) and Jennifer Lore (Ashleigh Gray) became a couple, leaving Graham Shakespeare behind (at least in his mind), but soon afterwards, Jennifer received an
offer to pursue her dream in Hollywood, in what ultimately became a permanent move to the States. Maddens was not only left behind, but having been unsuccessful in
establishing a career in drama, he became a primary school teacher at St. Bernadette’s, a school known for coming bottom of local league standings.

Especially, and ironically, when it came to the annual Nativity play. Receiving poor marks from the local critic (a typically snobbish, stuck-up type), the failure of
the show was made worse by the five-star review given to the play staged by none other than Shakespeare, now a teacher himself. So, when the winter season rolls around
again, Mr. Manners feels a lot of pressure and anger, partly because Jennifer had departed for USA at Christmas time. To try and help both Maddens and his class to put
on a great show, headmaster Mrs. Bevan (Jemma Churchill) enlists her nephew, Mr. Poppy (Simon Lipkin) to become a classroom assistant.

Poppy is childish, silly, over-the-top and sporting a strong sense of humour, but his attempts to give life to the school’s upcoming Nativity contrasts with the more
straight-laced, traditional mindset of Maddens. But due to the competitive rivalry with Shakespeare, Maddens soon takes things to the next level by falsely promising
during a quarrel that his former girlfriend will come along to a show that will feature all sorts of wacky props and stunts. Unfortunately for Maddens, Poppy spills
the beans to other people, and soon the whole town thinks that their local school in Coventry is about to receive genuine Hollywood attention for the purpose of an
eventual movie being made.

Everyone gets very excited, except for Maddens who realises that his throwaway comments were based on fantasy rather than reality, and he now worries as to how he can
pull this off. With Poppy’s help, they begin to form the plot for the Nativity, making it a full musical and adding in some alternate takes on classic scenes, as well
as holding some auditions amongst the kids for the play’s top roles. In the meantime, Maddens tries to call Jennifer and, after several attempts, Poppy provides him
with additional support that he finally gets hold of Lore and invites her to the Nativity, only to be told that she can’t attend, with the call quickly ending due to
pressure from her new boss in Hollywood (Adam Thomas).

Undeterred, Poppy somehow convinces Maddens to travel to Hollywood to personally persuade Jennifer to come, and with two of the kids no less, having supposedly
arranged the parental consent forms. Once there, Maddens overcomes a few hurdles to speak to her, and is initially brushed away, only for him to learn that she is
merely a secretary rather than an actress; it’s clear that she is upset at how she has failed to achieve her dreams, but she still feels that she cannot return home.
Her boss intervenes, leading to multiple confrontations as we realise how heartless he is, with her now trying to find a way to come back home. In the meantime,
though, the fall-out of the USA trip, along with Mrs. Bevan learning that the Hollywood attendees visiting would be a lie, leads to both Maddens and Poppy being
sacked, and the two falling out. After a period of reflection, they both make up and decide to hold the show anyway, but can they really put on a show worthy of the
hype after all their setbacks, and even if they do, will Jennifer find a way to be there? And what is to say that somebody else – namely, Shakespeare – might not try
to throw a further spanner or two in the ranks?

As I noted, the plot is very easy to follow, and the general crux of the show will be familiar to just about anyone. The script is very well-written, ensuring that
almost everybody is likeable. In particular, Simon Lipkin is positioned as and performs as the star of the show in the role of Mr. Poppy due to a never-ending barrage
of humorous one-liners and daft stage directions. All of the kids play their roles extremely well, showing talent and poise that belies their ages, and Scott Garnham
as Mr. Maddens manages to elicit sympathy and support from the audience in his quest to simply succeed in this one unusual venture. The singing is very good across the
board, especially from Ashleigh Gray as Jennifer Lowe. I was surprised that we didn’t see too much of Adam Thomas, but this is more than made up for by the outstanding
settings and superb props, ranging from giant star lights to zip-wires to the plethora of Christmas trees and tinsel wreaths that bring a suitably wintry vibe to the
Empire.

All of this is made more impressive considering that this particular performance was touch-and-go due to the drama earlier in the day. It would be easy for this to
affect the cast members in some way, but one would never know that something had happened a few hours beforehand, because everybody plays their part to the highest
possible standard. The crowd agreed, singing and clapping along, often erupting in laughter, and awarding the show a standing ovation at the end of this memorable
night.

Whether you’ve seen the film or not, Nativity: The Musical is an absolute treat and a joy to watch. It was well worth the lengthy wait, and I would highly recommend
this show to people of all ages to see. And besides, who would have known that the best way to celebrate Halloween would be to watch a Christmas show?

Overall Rating: 9/10 – Outstanding