Review by Richard Fitt
Performance on 29th November
Director: Cara Sigsworth
Musical director: Rod Iliffe
Choreographer: Sophie Sigsworth
I received a slightly panicky email towards the end of September urging me to choose which night I wished to come and see Nativity, as the tickets were selling out fast. Even then I didn’t get my first-choice night, and indeed within a week or so the ‘Sold Out’ notice appeared on the Mill’s website, almost two months ahead of opening night. So here I was on that very opening night in a packed auditorium eager to see how this keenly anticipated production turned out. I was not to be disappointed.
The basic story from playwright Debbie Isitt (the second of her plays put on by the Mill in succession) with music by Isitt and Nicky Ager centres around three childhood friends from Coventry: Paul Maddens played by Jay Lucas, Gordon Shakespeare, played by Tim Jackson-Waite and Jennifer Lore, played by Natalie Soroko, who grow up harbouring ambitions to become successful in the theatre and film world who all go to drama school.
As adults, Jennifer and Paul become romantically involved, but ambition gets the better of Jennifer and before Paul can propose, Jennifer flies off to Hollywood to pursue a career as a ‘film producer.’ Sadly, life’s hard knocks mean the two men end up as primary school teachers: Maddens at a local state school, Shakespeare at a public girls school, where they find themselves putting on their own rival productions of The Nativity. Enter Mr Poppy, played by Ian Hammond-Stark who narrates the story. A cheeky chappie, over-excitable and a childlike character with little sense of responsibility who becomes Madden’s assistant with the Nativity. Then, in collusion with Maddens, he promises everybody, including the headmistress that Hollywood is coming to Coventry to film their Nativity. A total fantasy, of course, based on his belief that Jennifer really was a top Hollywood producer. Friendships are tested to the hilt as both Maddens and Shakespeare put on rival Nativities which progress through rehearsals to performance.
The stage set, built by Stage Manager Ron Johnson together with Ricky Johnson, was a blank back white wall, onto which various images and lighting effects were projected, a centrepiece rostra with a brick façade when facing the audience and an open cavity, used by several characters to hide under, when reversed. To stage left was a spiral staircase and to stage right a straight staircase to the gallery above which housed the band and choir. The ‘Nativity’ artwork was prominently projected onto the back wall as we took our seats in the auditorium. The excellent lighting was once again in the capable hands of Ricky Johnson with sound by the other stalwart of Sharnbrook’s technical team, Mark Luckin. But, as an old person seated at the back of the auditorium, I did struggle hearing some of the dialog and song lyrics, especially with regard to the children, and the band did overpower them in their numbers.
Costume impresario Virginia Pope was once again doing her stuff in heading up the costume department with some very striking outfits, especially for the school children with her team of ‘The Pin-Up Girls’, Ann West, Julie Poole, Gill Ridley, Kim Hawking, Deanne Tucker and Wendy Armitage. A fabulous job as usual, the school uniforms of Oakmoor were particularly striking as were the Nativity outfits for both schools,
The choreography by Sophie Sigsworth, especially the way the children were so well drilled with the routines, was so suited to the different attitudes of their respective schools and was absolutely superb.
Our band, under the leadership of MD Rod Iliffe on Keyboard, with Lesley Brazel on Reed, Charlie Manning on Trumpet and Mark Crooks on Drums, was of course on top form.
We also had a rather lovely little choir which sang out to us from the balcony, greatly enhancing a lot of the songs. Well done to Kenzie Fraser, Sophie Broomhead, Charley Dixon-Kelly, Calvin Lucas and Annabelle Wood.
The whole show requires a very strong Mr Poppy and Ian Hammond-Stark certainly fitted the part perfectly. He is a natural stand-up comedian, best described as being in the ‘James Corden’ mode. His slightly bumbled delivery, his comic timing and his ability to adlib was the glue which held the whole show together. I would love to know how much was scripted and how much he adlibbed. But whatever was thrown at him he had a quick-witted retort. At one point for example, the child playing Joseph removed his false beard and quick as a flash he said, ‘Oh I see Joseph has had a shave!’ If it was scripted, it had both timing and delivery. Perfect stand-up territory!
Jay Lucas’ Paul Maddens was beautifully understated as the brow-beaten, lovesick, downtrodden teacher easily led by Mr Poppy with an excellent understanding between them. There was a beautiful rendition of ‘Wrapped In A Rainbow.’
Tim Jackson-Waite became more and more manic as the bitter, failed actor Gordon Shakespeare, determined to make sure he was not to be outdone. And his completely demented version of Herod in Oakmoor’s Nativity was just superb. There was a splendid moment when he was seen crawling across the set to disconnect the power to the stage plunging the whole theatre into darkness. We, the audience, were then asked to use the flashlights on our phones, which a lot of us did. Fab idea – er, one problem though, we had been asked to turn them off before the show started. Perhaps next time, you could ask us to put them on aeroplane mode…??
Natalie Soroko, was a lovely Jennifer, with a very touching version of ‘Jennifer’s Plea.’ Alex Goodbody was a wonderful Headmistress, Mrs Bevan, finding the skids put under her on more than one occasion. Great stuff. Charlie Hammond as Patrick Burns/Receptionist was a really good little cameo as the master of disapproving facial expressions, the audience loved him. Louise Lucas as Miss Rye, David Mander as Mr Parker and Graham Breeze as the Lord Mayor all gave very creditable performances.
Our ensemble splendidly backing everything up in various guises was, John Stevens, Jim Goodbody, Christy Himden-Mundy, Deborah Bobka, Leisa Cooke, Jenny Tymon-Robins and Tracey Arnold.
But now we come to the real stars of the show and the reason why I had to hurriedly book my seat so far in advance: our young actors. Wow! What wonderfully mature performances and so well-delivered with terrific confidence and panache. Drilled to perfection, comic timing in spades and lots of smiling faces. Can’t ask for better than that; you quite simply stole the show! Well done indeed to Tiger Lily Jackson, Elsie May Mander, Sophie Endersby, Tilly Freer, Daisy Clark, Lilli Koch, Jude Talbot, Declan Chettle, Alex and Ellie Kerin, Joseph Tyrell, William McLaughlin, Dylan Carr, Olivia Jackson-Waite, Elsa Garvi Gorringe, Audrey Lucas, Polly Duddles, Felicity James, Annabel Goodbody and Eva Sharp.
This show is a really good example of how far the Mill Theatre has come over the decades and how generations of experience have built up, and still are, creating strong deep roots from which to go forward. The amazing director of this show, Cara Sigsworth was brought into the fold when she was 13 by her mother, Sue Lander, who was this Show’s Production Manager, and the Choreographer was Sophie, her 18 year old daughter/granddaughter. A real family affair! So, congratulations to Cara, and her cast and crew for a fabulous show and a great evening’s entertainment.
One final note which I would like to make. This show was the swansong of Douglas Pope, Chairman of the Governors for 43 years and who has now decided to step down. My congratulations to Doug for that incredible achievement over such a long time and I wish him a well-earned and happy retirement. I thank him for his welcoming hospitality during my time as the NODA rep. And, if this show is anything to go by, he leaves knowing he has been prominent in securing the Mill for many future generations of thespians and their audiences to enjoy.
And finally, thank you to FOH Manager Gary Villers and his team for their usual splendid hospitality.