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Review: The Scouse Nativity at Royal Court Liverpool ****1/2

Tim Firth’s Flint Street Nativity is a seasonal favourite, while Nativity! The Musical is currently on a UK tour.

And with the advent of advent calendars that don’t even give a passing nodding donkey to the true meaning of Christmas, it appears it’s down to the Royal Court this year to remind us of the real reason for the season of excess.

And thus, it came to pass – The Scouse Nativity. But actually, not as Scouse as you might think from the title. Yes, there are references to places and things the fiercely proud Merseyside audience will love.

But writer/producer Kevin Fearon, penning his second seasonal show, has stuck to at least some of the Biblical facts and references, albeit subverting them with typical Royal Court chutzpah, a touch of panto (Paul Duckworth’s evilly good evil King Herod is pure Abanazer) and a knowing nod to school nativities of old.

And how the team has outdone itself, setting the bar for all future festive productions. The last time I laughed this much, or enjoyed such inventiveness, was probably Scouse of the Antarctic.

The Court’s returning faces have an absolute ball – particularly Drew Schofield, Stephen Fletcher and Keddy Sutton as a trio of shepherds who become unwillingly entangled in the story of the Nativity after a flying visit from Lindzi Germain’s divine Angela Gabriel.

They’re the comic engine house of the evening, whether it’s doing a sand dance to The Israelites (there are some things you can never unsee – and now Stephen Fletcher’s bare bottom is one of them), rocking the Judean karaoke dressed as the Bee Gees, arriving at the holy child’s crib in full Call The Midwife regalia, or on camels heading off in to the desert.

Meanwhile Duckworth is a deliciously good as the baddie Herod, facing down the vocal Royal Court audience with playground insult glee, while elsewhere he pops up in disguise as Bethlehem’s Manc innkeeper and later in the wilderness as John the Bishop (Baptist).

The capering comedy around the edges means to some extent Fearon and director Cal McCrystal can let the ‘story’ of Mary and Joseph (regular festive love interests Hayley Hampson and Michael Fletcher) unfold without too much mickey-taking.

How to get the shy sweethearts together so that Christianity can come in to being?

It all unfolds buoyed up by some great musical numbers – Hampson’s All I Want For Christmas is stellar – and against one of the best sets I’ve seen in a long time.

Designer Mark Walters’ vision on paper, realised on stage? A giant pop-up picture book with the cast turning the pages to reveal the next scene. It’s a brilliant feat of engineering and works fantastically well.

But how to finish the page-turner? Fearon opts for a Jeremy Kyle-take off which, while boasting a fine impersonation by Schofield, feels a bit at odds with the rest of the show.

Still, when it all ends with a joyous rendition of Mr Blue Sky, you’d have to be a dog in a manger not to hail The Scouse Nativity a great big Christmas hit.

The greatest story ever told? Well, it’s certainly right up there with the best shows the Court has ever staged.

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