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Tales from the crib (part II)

Can the Playhouse repeat the success of last year's festive smash, The Flint Street Nativity? Ben Patey revisits

Published on December 5th 2007.


Tales from the crib (part II)

It was always going to be a hard one to judge, second time around. After a record breaking run at The Playhouse last year, Tim Firth's smash is back.

But is it a one-hit wonder (There's No one Quite Like Grandma), or can it cement itself into the category of classic Christmas hit (Merry Xmas, Everybody)?

There are moments when you will laugh so much, you'll feel as though you've done 500 sit-ups. A Wise Man offers Jesus frankincense. Not an easy feat - he has a severe lisp.

The signs are encouraging. There are a few stragglers from last year's cast, notably Neil Caple in his hilarious roles of both Joseph and Herod, but the new faces give the play a fresh dimension.

The cast is the only thing that does change, however, and, as anyone who saw the play last time will vouch, this is most definitely a good thing. The script is the same (phew) and the music just as witty and catchy. The set is as visually superb and new scenes are introduced as smoothy as you like.

For those unfamiliar, adults play the roles of children taking part in a school Nativity play. The Christmas ghosts from infants class, which you thought had long since been exorcised, will haunt you as you remember Mary dropping baby Jesus through her fingers, and embarassing puddles occuring at incovenient moments. Unless, of course, you are a parent reliving the nightmare all over again.

There are moments when you will laugh so much, you'll feel as though you've done 500 sit-ups. A Wise Man returns to offer Jesus frankincense. Not an easy feat - he has a severe lisp. Meanwhile Joseph is more interested in re-enacting scenes from A Question of Sport or waving to his dad in the crowd.

The Donkey's musical showpiece gets the biggest laughs - his random shouts of "willy", "bum flaps" and" boobs" causing much hilarity in the audience. It's both reassuring and worrying that adults still find these words so funny.

Helen Carter is one of the highlights in her role as Gabriel, her devious nature and thick accent sure to go down well. The hold she has over her classmates is brilliant, while her plans to upstage and scupper Mary's performance are riotous.

But Flint Street has many poignant asides. The children's musical cameos give us an acute insight into their backgrounds, so that when the audience meet the parents at the end, they are already aware that the Wise Man's father has been in prison for money laundering, that the Angel's Indian mother is more interested in outdoing her Pakistani neighbour and that Mary's mum, a teacher and head of the PTA, is the world's most pushy parent.

Although the children have petty squabbles and come out with naive stories, they're still aware of trouble in their home lives, be it picking up on a father's drinking habit or their parents' turbulent marriage. In fact, when the Narrator's dad confides in the teacher, at the end, that his son has no idea he has broken up from his wife, she points out, "He's seven years old. He would have known before you did".

Going back to the earlier question posed then, what sets a classic Christmas show apart from a one-off? The template should be this one. Great observational comedy, effervescent characters and a story with depth and dimension. And jokes about bums too.

Flint Street Nativity, Liverpool Playhouse, Williamson Square, runs until January 12. 7.30pm. Click here to book

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