Poppy and Maddens

Simon Lipkin as Mr Poppy and Daniel Boys as Mr Maddens with the pupils of St Bernadette's.

Pictures: Richard Davenport

Nativity – The Musical

Birmingham Rep


If ever a show had 24 carat, solid gold, smash hit written all over it in flashing lights and tinsel, it is this one, a world premiere no less, based on the hit 2009 film.

From the turn off your mobiles request - or get attacked by a donkey - at the start, to the big, sparkly end, it is fun. It might be a little sad at times, even a little moving, but it is a show full of heart, full of hope and, most important, full of good cheer with extra helpings of laughter.

Everyone on stage seems to be having a ball - and that is a condition which is highly contagions, infecting the audience in no time at all  - so what is not to like?

If that is not enough it also has children, lots of them, and animals in the shape of stage struck pooch Pepper who plays Cracker, managing an awwwwe every time she appears.

The story is simple; set in Coventry and Hollywood, two words which don’t often inhabit the same sentence, St Bernadette’s Catholic Primary is a school where the bright light of education struggles to shine and it’s only claim to fame is that it has made the relegation spot in the school league tables its own.

Meanwhile three friends, Paul, Gordon and Jennifer have grown up, Paul to become Mr Maddens, who teaches at St Bernadette’s, Gordon, Mr Shakespeare who teaches at the posh, private Oakmore primary and Paul’s ex-girlfriend Jenny has left him to go to Los Angeles to follow her dream of being a Hollywood producer – leaving at Christmas just after being given Cracker as a present, which has tarnished Paul’s tinsel and turkey and goodwill to all men no end.

On top of Jenny's leaving, in the unofficial battle of the school nativity plays, Oakmore had stuffed their state opponents out of sight, the loser’s abject effort being directed by Mr Maddens, all of which just added to his understandable dislike of Christmas.


Mr Maddens reads the class's letters to Santa  as they sing Dear Father Christmas.

Move on five years, and it’s been five years when Paul has not spoken to Jenny, now, so we hear, a big shot Hollywood producer, despite still being in love with her, and now has another lonely Christmas looming. So, no prizes for guessing who the head, Mrs Bevan, comes up with to direct this year’s Nativity play . . .

But she did offer help in the shape of Mr Poppy, who, if truth be known, is probably a bigger kid than the ones he is assisting to teach, but what great fun.

So, let battle commence, posh v plebs, Shakespeare v Maddens, with festive bragging rights the glittering prize – with a long-distance love story thrown in for good measure. There are twists and turns, a little white lie that grows like Topsy and develops a life of its own, and even a mobile phone Son et lumière for the birth of Jesus organised by, who else?, Mr Poppy.

Mr Poppy is played brilliantly by Simon Lipkin who endears himself from the moment he walks on stage. He is funny, witty with oodles of charm, mixing humour and pathos – a true modern clown. He also has a delicious line in off the cuff asides, little, matter of fact put downs of a whole host of celebrities. Beautifully written and equally beautifully delivered in a masterful performance which is worth the ticket price alone.

Lipkin is an established West End star, as are the other leads, such as Daniel Boys, who is a suitably earnest Mr Maddens, trying to do his best for his kids, while Andy Brady is a suitably arrogant, nasty and thoroughly unlikeable Mr Shakespeare. Brady comes from Coventry, incidentally, so is on home, if only fictional, turf.


Sarah Earnshaw, who last passed through here as The Lady of the Lake in Spamalot, is the love interest in the shape of Jenny, who headed off to LA to follow her dream, which is perhaps not quite the one she travelled some 7,000 miles for  five years ago.

There is good support from Jemma Churchill as the bossy Mrs Bevan, Jamie Chapman as the poison penned Coventry Evening Tel critic Patrick Burns, Andy Barke as the Hollywood studio boss and Gary Davis as the Lord Mayor.

And then we have the little stars shining brightest of all, the children, 27 of them split into three teams with two teams appearing as pupils of each school, each night. They are a delight - funny and fun. Writer and director Debbie Isitt, who also directed and was behind the Nativity films, has done a fine job in making the kids look natural with none of the stage school fixed smile and look at the audience all the time, here. These kids look and act like real children with a lovely cheeky charm about them. Stars in the making.

Isitt’s direction, helped by David Woodheads clever fluid setting, keeps up a cracking pace, driving the tale along while Andrew Wright’s choreography adds its own interest in what looks and feels like a hot-ticket West End show

The musical incorporates some songs from the film, such as Nazareth, Sparkle and Shine, One Night One Moment and She’s The Brightest Star, along with new material, like the film, all co-written by Issit and Nicky Ager, all to an excellent five piece band, who sound much bigger than their number, under musical director Michael Riley.

Watching Matilda on its opening run at the RSC you knew you were seeing something special, Nativity has that same feeling. Christmas has come early - the producers, including Birmingham Rep and Coventry Belgrade, have a hit on their hands. Catch it while you can. To 12-11-17

Roger Clarke



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