nativity cast

Pictures: Pamela Raith

Nativity! The Musical

Birmingham Rep


This is not just Nativity, this is new, improved Nativity as the ad men might say, bursting with fun and packing enough feelgood to light up a city.

It’s jam full of brilliant kids, and a few adults, and it zooms along at F1 pace with glitter and sparkle in its wake - a real Christmas cracker.

Our guide is Mr Poppy played with a sense of unbridled fun by Ben Lancaster. Mr Poppy is a teaching assistant, unqualified, unconventional, unserious (is that a word?), in short, someone who appears to have missed that bit in life where you are supposed to grow up.

It is a masterful performance of out and out, madcap fun, taking the adoring pupils of St Bernadette’s primary school along with him. He’s their new best friend, leader of their gang and has the audience eating out of his hands from the moment he walks on stage and eats the spotlight – literally.

He is the new assistant, (Ofsted might say hindrance), to Mr Maddens, played in a serious (sort of) vein by Billy Roberts. Mr Maddens is recovering from a previous school nativity he directed and produced which managed a negative review in the local rag. Roberts strikes a lovely balance between the traditional teacher and straight man to Mr Poppy’s antics.

poppy and maddens

Ben Lancaster as Mr Poppy, Billy Roberts as Mr Maddens and the children of St Bernadettes

But there is also a melancholy about him. He is mourning the loss of his one true love, Jennifer, who went off to Hollywood for just six months to follow her dream and, five years on, is still there -and has become a big producer . . . maybe.

Jennifer, played by Daisy Steere, Maddens and Mr Shakespeare, played by Matthew Roland, were childhood friends and went to drama school together. Jen and Maddens fell in love, Mr Shakespeare . . . well let’s say he was not the best of losers.

Steere’s Jennifer showed a determination to follow her dream, and perhaps a reluctance to admit dreams don’t always come true, Maddens realised he was no actor and turned to teaching while Shakespeare was the new Olivier – unfortunately it was a view not universally shared so teaching offered sanctuary.

So we had Maddens in a run down Coventry state primary and Shakespeare in Oakmoor, a posh, private primary for Coventry’s scions of the rich and privileged.

And with an annual Battle of the Nativities reviewed by The Cov Tel’s Patrick Burns, played so far over the top by Jamie Chapman he was probably a hazard to planes landing at Elmdon, it was Shakespeare’s chance to defeat Maddens, a need to win you suspect was more about revenge than merely school pride.


Daisy Steere as Jennifer walking away to follow her dream

Roland is a delight as the obsessed Shakespeare, turning nastiness into an art form. His Herod the Rock Musical is unlikely to tour, but it gave us a dark laugh.

As for Chapman’s theatre critic Burns . . . well, as a member of His Majesty’s Press Corps, it’s tempting to give him a bad review in retaliation, but he minced through the part rather well, adding a star struck priest and loud and funny LA tour guide to his repertoire.

In charge of it all is Mrs Bevan, St Bernadette’s head, played by Jemma Churchill, who sets the whole thing in motion by making Mr Maddens produce another nativity, long before the scars of the last one have healed.

Then in a by chance my dog’s bigger than your dog meeting with Shakespeare, Mr Maddens makes claims that are, well, more porkies than claims, and that would have been that, except Mr Poppy overhears the boasts and before you know it the Lord Mayor, played by Ralph Bogard, is congratulating Mrs Bevan, Mr Madden’s simple school nativity play has been moved to Coventry’s bombed cathedral shell and the city is ready to welcome Hollywood.

This is where the term belly up comes in. Mr Bevan’s little lie has grown to the size of the Ghostbuster’s marshmallow man. But the Ghostbusters won remember, and, after all, this is a feelgood musical, so we have to have a happy ending, but you can find that out for yourselves, you just need to go along.

Let’s just say Mr Madden’s last nativity was minus two and this one is only a five because that’s as high as we go, so you won't be disappointed.

Mr Shakespeare

Matthew Rowland as the manic Mr Shakespeare and the perfectly frightful pupils of Oakmoor   

Along the way we meet the sports teacher Mr Rye, played by Tom Hext, who suddenly wants to be part of a nativity he has avoided for years and Mr Parker, played by Cameron Johnson, head of Parker Films in LA, who with a bit of a push – well big shove really – finally finds a heart.

And there are some wonderful children, 50 of them are in the show, in two teams brimming with talent with, on Press night, Matilda Flower as the star being a particular favourite, the star in fact - audiences just love cute tiny tots . . . and of course dogs.

Sia, who played Cracker, is one of three dogs playing the part, and produced an Ahhh from the audience that could probably be heard in Coventry.

David Woodhead’s set is deceptively simple, allowing scenes to flow into each other and creating Hollywood red carpets, Herod’s musical and even Coventry cathedral at the drop of a hat or at least a panel from the flies or sliding rear wall.

It is all brought to life by Tim Mitchell’s lighting design and music from the five piece band under musical director Joshua Griffiths.

Birmingham born Debbie Isitt wrote, produced and directed the blockbuster Nativity Christmas film franchise – the latest, Christmas on Mistletoe Farm, out on Netflix this year - and brought Nativity to the stage at the Rep in 2017.

This version is bang up to date with Liz Truss, for a short while, Matt Hancock, down under, and Phillip Schofield pushed into the firing line along with plenty of topical references and of course Messiah Carey – don’t ask.

It is heart-warming, family fun, 24 carat, gold star entertainment where you can forget the cost of living, soaring fuel bills and all your troubles for a while, just sit back, marvel and enjoy the magic. To 07-01-23

Roger Clarke


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