Stars explained: * A production of no real merit
with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not
enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real
life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A
good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely
achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a
great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major
flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic
which lifts theatre to another plane.
A Wayne in a manger
CHRISTMAS has many traditions: the Yule log, wassailing, the holly and the ivy, mistletoe, Christingles . . . and the primary school nativity play.
This is trial by infant, a right of passage for new teachers, where no amount of rehearsals, coaching, cajoling or even bribery can even come close to guaranteeing what will happen when doting parents, grandparents and assorted relatives arrive and the curtain rises. It must at times feel akin to herding cats.
The school nativity has been a rich source of material for sketches and comedies over the years, all based upon adults playing children, but Stage2 has gone back to source, with yet another world premiere, the third in a year, this time a stage adaptation of the books of former teacher and school inspector Gervase Phinn who has chronicled anecdotes and experiences of the Christmas story at its most unpredictable.
And thus it came to pass upon one midnight, or at least one school afternoon clear, amid all the tea towel headdresses, held on by snake clip belts, and robes of bed sheets and dressing gowns, that the inn keeper, eschewing long established tradition, declares there is plenty of room in his inn and ushers a confused Mary and Joseph into uncharted theology.
Or, we see the innkeeper who desperately wanted to be Joseph, petulantly telling Mary he has room for her, dragging her inside, and then telling Joseph to shove off.
It is all narrated in charming laid-back style by George Bandy as Phinn, the school inspector. Through him we meet the teachers, such as the head, played, with frayed nerves, by Maya Bennett, the school play’s director, played, approaching her wit’s end, by Laura Dowsett, deputy head Chloe Jennings, and class teachers battling against the odds played by Izzy Jones-Rigby, Emily Cremins, Roni Mevorach and Adriana Ruttledge, along with classroom assistant Ana Pettifer.
One of the books on which Liz Light's stage play is based
The teachers, particularly Miss Dowsett, do a splendid job in each nativity scene trying to direct, instruct or . . . threaten from the wings, all to no avail, and they present a credible ad for Prozac in each classroom scene as they battle the logic and interruptions of infants.
Then there is the school secretary, clipboard at the ready, played by Jazz Davis, grumpy caretaker Robert Fretwell, fretting irritably about his toilets, a visiting Christmas poet, played by Ben Pietoni, who finds a new Christmas tradition in that there is no room at the school, particularly if he does not have a CRB check.
Not to mention the vicar, played by Alexander Butler, whose faith is not so much tested as bypassed by the parallel primary school universe.
For example, he is up against the likes of the little lad, played by Amit Mevorach, who shuns 2,000 years of Christianity to declare that Mary’s boy child was not named Jesus at all, but Wayne, and he is insistent he is right, after all that’s who we sing about at Christmas init?, “ A Wayne in a manger . . .” which, incidentally, also gives us our title.
Amid the excellent horde . . . sorry, class of pupils, we have Chelsea, played by Carmen Hutchens, who jumps on Phinn’s lap and clings on like ivy when he stands in for Santa. Sadly Chelsea is just recovering from an infestation headlice and a bout of scabies. Just rub the cream in twice a day sir!
Or there is Kairo Palmer playing the grumpy angel with a voice and delivery like a depressed Dalek, or the Mary who tells Joseph “I’m having a baby . . . and it’s not yours”, which probably went down well at Nazareth’s Carpenter’s Arms.
Then we have a whole host of alternative nativities, such as the gifts of Gold, Myrrh and Frank sent this, of Mary’s mangy donkey which may or may not have had bells like the one at Blackpool, Louis Dalaney’s Dominic, with his own version of the Christmas story, Jesus and the giant flea, and then there was Daisy Wilkes as Chardonnay, with her graphic description with actions and suitable gory detail of her sister’s unexpected Christmas day birth while her parents were down the pub. No shepherds or angels at that one methinks.
Liz Light, who also directs the play, adapted two of Phinn’s books, A Wayne in a manger and The Virgin Mary’ got nits into this first stage version, with Phinn’ support. As usual with Stage2, Light goes for the Ben Hur cast model, 47 people on stage at times in this one, and, as usual, they all play their part and never look like a crowd. Organised chaos as she puts it.
Below - in rehearsal
When assembled as a class there is fidgeting, talking, pushing, shoving and playing up, with every child animated, making it all seem authentic. It looks unruly but it is anything but, the chaos is organised, rehearsed and disciplined.
And then there is the noise, Light has remarkably managed to generate the sound of swarming infants as they move around the stage, that high pitched tinkling, breaking glass whine you hear in crowded swimming pools or beyond the hedges of any primary school playing fields at break times.
In her script Light has cleverly mixed the school’s adults, breaking the fourth wall, talking to the audience with asides and comment, with scenes of the children, and a cast who are clearly having the time of their lives as pupils, in classes or nativity plays.
The script, at times touching, is gloriously funny, but laughs have to be earned; comedy is not easy, but this young cast showed commendable timing and delivery to squeeze out every drop of humour.
And for a company with a solid reputation for its stagecraft, this is a production with some of the worst acting ever seen at Stage2 – intentionally bad I hastily add as the lack of basic thespian ability in some of the plays is portrayed. To act that badly convincingly is not easy and they did it badly well . . . if you see what I mean.
There are plenty of laugh out loud moments, the bowing king, the fatted calf, the stage struck . . . dumb, the pink knickers, Round John, the Jesus egg and many a parent or grandparent will recognise a character or two from the nativities they have seen, or even be able to add their own.
This is not the easiest play to stage with quick scene changes, a big cast constantly moving around the stage and a lot of laughs, all needing room and time to breathe but this talented cast take it all in their stride. Their enthusiasm is infectious, It’s slick, fast paced, and great fun with belly laughs thrown in. All that remains is to decide if it is the last Christmas show of 2016, or the first of 2017. Whatever, Merry Christmas past or yet to come as Dickens might have it. To 14-01-17