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Making a song and dance of the Nativity!

Actor Daniel Boys and director Debbie Isitt from Nativity! The Musical tell Claire Brine why the Christmas story appeals to kids and grown-ups

The nativity story is a part of life

 IT’S the most wonderful time of the year. But while the kids at St Bernadette’s Primary School are getting in the festive spirit, their teacher Mr Maddens is feeling it’s all humbug. He hates Christmas, so it’s with great reluctance that he takes on the challenge of directing the school play. That’s the backdrop to Nativity! The Musical, which is being staged at the Leeds Grand Theatre.

Based on the 2009 film Nativity!, which starred Martin Freeman as Mr Maddens, Nativity! The Musical tells the story of a group of primary school children who have high hopes that a Hollywood producer will come to see their Christmas play and make a film out of it. Encouraged by an enthusiastic teaching assistant, Mr Poppy, the kids start to rehearse a nativity musical, filled with sparkle, shine and even a death slide. As far as they’re concerned, things are really cool in Nazareth.

But Mr Maddens doesn’t seem to think so. His heart isn’t in the production. Nor does he believe his kids have got what it takes to mount a decent show. Surely the children from rival school Oakmoor will put on a Christmas show that’s ten times better! They usually do.

‘Ever since Mr Maddens had his heart broken at Christmastime, he has hated the festive season,’ says actor Daniel Boys, who plays the character. ‘I feel sorry for him because he’s feeling a bit lost. He’s still pining for his ex-girlfriend. He works in a not-very-good school. He doesn’t like his job and the children aren’t particularly talented.’

The last time Mr Maddens directed the nativity at St Bernadette’s, he received a theatrical review of minus two stars. No wonder he is reluctant to repeat the experience.

‘To help him direct the play, he is assigned a teaching assistant called Mr Poppy,’ explains Daniel. ‘But he’s nothing more than a big kid himself, so Mr Maddens finds him very irritating.

‘Just when Mr Maddens thinks nothing else can possibly go wrong, he gets caught up in a lie. He tells a teacher from the rival school that a Hollywood producer is coming to see St Bernadette’s nativity production. Basically, he digs a massive hole for himself and everything gets on top of him.’

Despite Mr Maddens’s low mood and the fact that there’s no Hollywood producer on the horizon, the kids keep rehearsing. The date for the nativity show is looming and they’re excited about telling the Christmas story in Coventry Cathedral.

‘Every night onstage, when the kids re-enact the moment of Jesus’ birth, I get the shivers,’ says Daniel. ‘I watch the kids who are playing Mary and Joseph as they hold up the baby Jesus, and I can’t help but be moved by it. It’s spine-tingling.’

Debbie Isitt, who wrote and directed the film – and then turned it into a stage musical – agrees.

‘People say the Christmas story is the greatest story ever told, and I think they’re right,’ she told The War Cry after the original film was released. ‘The values of peace, goodwill and love are evident. I can’t think of anything more miraculous.’

As a child, Debbie felt proud to play Mary in her school nativity play and, as a result, has remained a fan of the traditional telling of the Christmas story.

‘These days so many schools feel they have to spice up their Christmas play, calling it “The Wiggly Worm Nativity” or whatever, because they think they can’t keep wheeling out the same old story. But in my experience, parents love seeing a traditional version, because it reawakens memories for them.

‘And I think kids love performing it too. The season holds so much magic for them. They love the presents and Santa, of course, but when they think about the baby in the manger, about Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem and all the animals, they delight in something great happening outside themselves.’

As well as writing and directing the film and musical, Debbie also co-wrote the songs that the children perform. The stage adaptation even contains some new songs, which Daniel says are ‘extremely catchy’.

One of the songs, which the children sing when Jesus is born, describes the unfolding scene as being ‘one night, one moment, and everything’s changed’.

‘The songs come from my heart,’ Debbie explains. ‘I believe that Jesus was and is a powerful presence for good in the world. His birth is about light, not darkness. Anyone who can grab hold of that light is blessed.

‘I believe that people will go on telling the nativity story year after year because it is a part of life. And it is important that people think about the message behind the story and what it means to them.’

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