As a theatre critic, I see a lot of weird stuff on stage, but I’d never given serious thought to the dramatic merits of school nativities.
That was until the other week, when my eldest child made his stage debut as Second Shepherd in something called Whoops-A-Daisy Angel, which some fellow parents may know as a sort of short, pre-cooked nativity musical for reception-age children.
After a decade or so of reviewing fancy London theatre productions with directors and budgets and stuff, it was a bit of a jarring experience. The actors, who had one line apiece aside from the two girls playing the title role, were extremely cute, but frequently indecipherable.
Indeed, I struggled to work out the plot – something about a clumsy angel named Whoops-A-Daisy, but due to some fairly woeful diction, it lapsed into indecipherability sometime around the point where we were told the story of how the angel hooked up with the action of the more traditional nativity.
My main note would be that it needed much, much stronger dramaturgy. Still, it had its charm: which made it weird that an immaculate pre-recorded children’s choir was slapped on over the PA every time there was a song. Why not embrace the non-professional cast’s rough edges rather than try to paste over them with such obvious trickery?
Though speaking of the technical stuff: I would question the decision to keep the house lights up throughout, while in the words of a neighbouring parent, there were poor audience sight lines: “There wasn’t enough of a ramp,” he said. “It’s called the rake,” I hissed, heroically.
As a regular theatregoer, I’m very aware the world is not made up of regular theatregoers. It now fascinates me that many of us go through this slightly strange shared theatrical experience at the age of four or five, a religious rite in an age of secularism, a trip to the theatre in an age when not that many people make trips to the theatre, an acting experience that may be the only acting experience of many people’s life.
On one level it feels frustrating that this may be it for so many kids – that unless they go to one of the dwindling number of schools blessed with drama facilities, their exposure to performance might be more or less limited to this one, kitschy ritual.
On the other hand, daft as it might be, there is something undeniably heartening – beautiful, even – about the fact they do this at all. Maybe some people catch the acting bug from the school nativity, though I haven’t heard of any. But it’s something, and no matter what my son does with his life, we’ll always have Second Shepherd. It might not be great theatre, but theatre it is, and I think that counts for something.
Andrzej Lukowski is theatre editor at Time Out London and a regular contributor to The Stage. Read more of his articles at thestage.co.uk/author/andrzej-lukowski