By Sophia Atkinson
Walking into Chad’s Chapel to the sound of Mariah Carey and the Pogues, they only thing I was sure about were the free mince pies at the interval. At best, I was hoping for a chipper nativity play. What I didn’t know was that Chad’s Green Door Theatre Company were taking on roles performed by Julia Sawahla, Frank Skinner, Jane Horrocks, and Neil Morrissey. The Flint Street Nativity comes with a whole host of challenges for actors, from realistically acting and speaking like Year 2 students, to metamorphosing into the children’s parents in the space of time it takes for the Star to sing a tribute to NASA in the final act. The cast took on all these challenges with ease and confidence, successfully twisting the familiar school nativity into a ‘House of Cards’ style bloodbath.
The play within a play centres on a group of 7 year olds on the Wales-Cheshire border rehearsing and performing their Christmas nativity play. The group are full of strong characters, from the controlling Mary (Stacey Cockram), the ‘Question of Sport’ obsessed Joseph (Jonathan Vautrey), the subversive donkey (Mary Lord) and the demonic Angel Gabriel (Annabel Dickson). Special mention must go to the costume team- Teresa Cherubini, Kin Rana and Henry Irvine- for constructing a giant foil-covered cardboard star with a face-sized hole from which Richard Penney’s face can emerge. The star stumbles around for much of the first half struggling to manoeuvre his way through doors and mumbling about his Uncle Ted’s job at NASA, much to the disinterest of the rest of the cast. It is later revealed that Uncle Ted is responsible for the boy’s mother falling pregnant with him at University, is now estranged from his son, and only able to see him under the guise of ‘Uncle’.
Meanwhile, the Narrator spends the whole play looking out for her parents only to find her father is in the audience with a woman who “isn’t my mum”. The Innkeeper, played by Marcus Dell, sings about how his father always smells of beer. Mary is struggling to maintain her sanity under pressure from her tyrannical PTA-leading mother. These are but a few examples of the critique of parenting that the cast’s impressive characterisation of the 7 year olds’ hopes and disappointments beautifully evoke through the dark comedy of Tim Firth, writer of the 1999 film.
Lighter comic relief is provided by Mary and the Angel Gabriel’s feud. The Angel Gabriel’s political machinations -and prayer for Mary to be struck down with chicken pox like Herod- are not only effective but hilarious. Power-play between the Year 2 girls is nigh on Regina George-esque with Gabriel’s repeated exclusion of either the other Angel (Rebecca Kingston) who is afraid to outshine the Queen Bee or the sole Wiseman (or rather wisewoman, played by Mikki Redhead). The Innkeeper’s unrequited love for Mary and the Shepherd’s assertion that Mary must love the boy playing Joseph/Herod because she keeps combing his hair, culminates in a brilliant scene at the end of the first half, and a sense of absolute relatability and nostalgia for all primary school relationships that never were.
Absolute stand out performances come from the Ass (Mary Lord) and lisping Wise Frankincense’s (Sebastian Higgins) double act towards the end in which they sing one of the many parodied carols of the play, recognising each other as ‘different’ and slower than the rest of the class. Frankincense lets slip about his father’s stint in prison for money laundering through Gibraltar, while the Ass’ mum is revealed to have stolen some trackies from BHS. The two expertly play off each other with great comic timing. But they also strike at something deeper, as does much of the comedy of the play. Their exclusion by their classmates can be strangely liberating. The Ass’ joy that she can say or do anything she likes with the donkey’s head on, and desire for everyone to wear such a hat can be translated into a desire to be free from social constraints. Even at 7 years old, the children are under significant peer and social pressure and are already savvier than you’d think.
The final scene in which the children translate into their parents was both a funny and unsettling moment in the play, evidencing how much of the blame for our character traits can be laid at our parents’ door. Given the children’s account of poor parenting throughout the play prior to this, there is a sense of dramatic irony that the parents assume the children to be clueless about domestic issues. As Mary’s mother says at the end, “She’s 7 years old, she probably noticed there was a problem before you did”. The children’s honesty, naivety and perceptiveness make them the perfect focalisers for the play. These traits are creatively brought out by the cast. But as well as all the psychological complexities the cast conveyed, they managed to remain very, very funny throughout.
Poster: Green Door Theatre Company