Director: Debbie Isitt
Cast: Martin Freeman, Marc Wootton, Jason Watkins, Ashley Jensen
Watch Nativity! online in the UK: BBC iPlayer / Netflix UK / Amazon Prime Video / iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / Google Play / Sky Store
“Things are really cooooool in Nazareth…” That’s not the way the nativity story usually goes at Christmas, and it’s that simple note of surprise that makes Debbie Isitt’s Nativity! an absolute delight. The film dives into the endless swamp of frustration and awkwardness that is the school Christmas play, as St. Bernadette’s Catholic prepares to put on their annual seasonal showcase.
With Oakmoor, the local private school down the road, putting an unmatchable amount of money and resources into their production, put-upon teacher Paul Maddens (Martin Freeman) finds himself trying to compete with their leader, Gordon Shakespeare (the always fantastic Jason Watkins). And so Paul tells a little white lie: that a Hollywood producer will be coming to see their show. The only catch? Jennifer (Ashley Jensen) isn’t actually a producer, and she and Paul broke up several years ago when she moved to America. That doesn’t stop the news racing through the town, though, and the local paper gets wind of the supposed visit – and so the road is paved for a ridiculously overblown play with hopes just waiting to be dashed.
Nobody is more hopeful than Mr. Poppy (Marc Wootton), the teaching assistant assigned to Mr. Poppy’s class – less because of his actual skills and experience and more because he’s the nephew of imperious headteacher Mrs. Bevan (Pam Ferris). Wootton plays him with the hyperactive energy of a toddler who’s been inserting candy floss into both nostrils all morning, running around the classroom and screaming at the top of his voice. And yet he turns out to be a natural in the drama department, helping Paul conjure up a number of enjoyable songs and encouraging the kids to audition with whatever gifts they have.
Talent contests are a tired mainstay of our living rooms, but it’s to Nativity!’s credit that its gimmick never feels mean or exploitative. While Mr. Poppy might irk some adults, Wooton’s enthusiastic sincerity sets the tone for the whole film: it’s knowingly daft, but genuinely excited to embrace the partly-improvised hijinks of the young cast, just as the production they eventually mount has the self-aware humour of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore but the infectious delight of Hey Duggee. Isitt and Nicky Ager’s songs are pitched just right for that twee tone, balancing inventive lyrics (“Tonight’s the first time ever Christmas Eve!”) with the kids’ catchy delivery.
Freeman is ideal as the straight man around which all the chaos spirals, anchoring everything with a likeable presence that lets us sympathise with his frustration (who hasn’t had to endure an awkward school play?) while secretly cheering on the silliness. By the time the end credits roll, you’ll be tapping your toes and singing “Sparkle and Shine”, whether you like Christmas or not.
Nativity! is available on BBC iPlayer until 19th January 2019. It is also available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.
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