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Review: Nativity! the Musical at Liverpool Empire ****1/2

Christmas really does get earlier every year – but a Nativity on Halloween night?

That could have been an interesting mash-up, and indeed there were some young members of the Empire audience who looked like they might have come straight from a round of trick or treating.

Meanwhile, although it was definitely treat on stage, behind the scenes it was more trick for the adult cast who got stuck in the Empire’s backstage lift for a couple of hours during the afternoon and had to be rescued by the fire brigade.

It led to producers deciding to put back the start time – initially 15 minutes which in the event stretched to a long half-an-hour, with writer/director Debbie Isitt finally appearing stage left to explain their “horror of a day” in apologetic tones.

But you can’t keep a great show down, and Nativity! the Musical is a great show – colourful, charming, heartfelt and illuminating. In fact, you’d need to be a real humbug not to come out with a big smile on your face and childlike joy in your heart.

For the uninitiated, the rivalry between two very different Coventry schools – the rather scruffy St Bernadette’s RC Primary and the preppy Oakmoor – reaches a crescendo each Christmas when they vie to receive the benediction of the city paper’s acid-penned, bouffant-haired reviewer (Jamie Chapman).

In charge of Oakmoor’s festive offering is the uber competitive and fiercely jealous Mr Shakespeare (Andy Brady with a tinge of John Lithgow in 30 Rock), while the poison chalice at St Bernadette’s is handed to his erstwhile childhood friend Mr Maddens (Scott Graham), grumpy in shades of grey and still mourning the loss of his true love Jennifer (Ashleigh Grey) who left him to follow her Hollywood dreams. That's Hollywood LA - not Hollywood, Birmingham by the way.

Nativity! the Musical. Photos by Richard Davenport

With one last chance to impress the critics, Mr Maddens is presented with a new classroom assistant in the form of the irrepressible Mr Poppy (Simon Lipkin), a man-child who exhibits the kind of boundless enthusiasm usually the preserve of a children’s TV presenter.

Will Mr Maddens win (back) the girl? Will St Bernadette’s young actors achieve their potential and stage a Nativity to remember? Will a big Hollywood producer be enticed to fly over to Coventry to watch? And will peppy Mr Poppy ever, EVER run out of energy?

Isitt adapted her own hit film to create an evening of live theatre which is simply delightful.

Her cast includes not one troupe of child actors but two, with the touring production’s talented regular youngsters (the Bash Street-style kids at St Bernadette’s) augmented this week by local children who attended open auditions at the Empire and who play the regimented Oakmoor pupils with great verve, confidence and timing.

Mr Poppy (Simon Lipkin - left). Photo by Richard Davenport

Of course, there’s another bigger kid in this show, and that’s Simon Lipkin’s Mr Poppy. Lipkin is an effortless scene stealer, a force of nature who fairly fizzes about the stage but who also senses the potential in his little charges that their real teacher has failed to see.

The first half is a complete riot, and while the pace slows after the interval – as the action shifts Stateside and adult emotions come in to play – the final 20 minutes really do give the youngsters the chance to ‘sparkle and shine’ in what's a fabulously feelgood finale.

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