Christmas has arrived even earlier than usual this year than usual with this likeable stage version of the 2009 British festive favourite. Nativity! – the first film in what would become a trilogy – tells the story of an under-performing Coventry school, already in special measures, that goes head-to-head with a rival school in trying to stage an annual seasonal play, and hoping somehow to attract Hollywood interest.
In trumpeting the values of community-based theatre, it is reminiscent of the great Christopher Guest mock-documentary Waiting for Guffman, or a children’s version of Stepping Out. It may not be as subversively funny as Matilda or as slickly produced as School of Rock, two productions with which it shares an affinity, but it has a similar affectionate wistfulness and easy charm.
The film’s writer and director Debbie Isitt, along with the film’s co-composer Nicky Ager, has written the significantly expanded score – the film had six numbers; the stage version, including reprises, has 21 – and there are some serviceably catchy tunes. But with three rotating teams of nine child performers, the score is mainly a vehicle to showcase their diminutive, scrappy charms.
As in School of Rock, the adults can hardly compete, though Simon Lipkin has a subversive and easy affability as a disruptive teacher’s assistant, Mr Poppy, who helps the kids unlock their talents. There’s also a nicely contained performance from Daniel Boys as Mr Maddens, the teacher charged with directing the show, while dealing with his own heartbreak when his girlfriend (an under-used Sarah Earnshaw) pursues a dream job in LA.
While many of the performances are comedy caricatures, Lipkin and Boys invest their roles with a more tangible sense of jeopardy: there’s something at stake for both of them and they bring depth and grit to proceedings.
David Woodhead’s set and costumes frame the action in cartoon strip style, and even if the budget sometimes leaves things looking undernourished (and with a band of just five players, it sounds it, too), it more than compensates for this with its warmth and high energy, a quality enhanced by Andrew Wright’s intentionally undemanding choreography.
The show could happily become a seasonal staple as a alternative to panto. With Everybody’s Talking About Jamie about to transfer to the West End, the British-born musical is thriving.