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The Flint Street Nativity

by on 12 December 2022

Role Models

The Flint Street Nativity

by Tim Firth

Richmond Shakespeare Society at the Mary Wallace Theatre until 17th December

Review by Ian Moone

Many of us have memories, some more distant than others, of our own involvement in school Christmas nativities.  In my youth, for example, I was proudly cast in the role of Joseph, much to the delight of my highly competitive Irish mother who proceeded to shoehorn this exciting news into every possible conversation.  To be fair, as a child I never gave her much to brag about, so I can’t really blame her for wanting to cherish those rare moments of scholastic pride! 

Back then, our whole-school nativity was performed on the altar of our local church at Christmas Eve mass and was considered by many as the highlight of the parish Christmas calendar.  To have one’s child chosen to take part was a great honour but for them to be cast as Mary or Joseph…?  Well, you can imagine the sheer delight in our house.  This pride was, however, to be short-lived as, having been found guilty of messing about with the ox and ass in rehearsal one too many times, her beloved son was cruelly sentenced to joining their ranks permanently.  This sudden, unexpected and, to me anyway, highly unjustified relegation from Holy Family to woolly mammal-ey (sorry), was soon made official with the unceremonious stripping of the Joseph head-dress and the disdainful issuing of a hastily-made and ill-fitting set of ram’s horns.  Nuns could be so cruel back then!  It would be many years before this story could be jovially recounted in our house without invoking the petrifying stares of mother.

Well, many years have passed since then and times have changed greatly.  However, the insatiable need of some parents to exorcise the ghosts of their own childhood shortcomings, through the vicarious success of their children, is as present today as it ever was before, and it is this unhealthy competition, displayed by children but actually imprinted onto them by the behaviour of their often more childlike parents, that provides much of the fuel for this clever piece of theatre.

Originally written in 1999 as a television comedy, Flint Street Nativity was born of author Tim Firth’s own school Christmas recollections.  In his own words, “There’s no treachery, assassination, double-dealing, deceit, coercion or blackmail that you encounter in life that you will not have been prepared for in the classroom.”  Firth cleverly uses this play to explore the obvious humour of a certain school’s preparation for their Nativity whilst also examining the relationship between the actions of each child and their experiences at home.  Via a number of theatrical devices, such as the singing of popular Christmas carols, but with the familiar words replaced with the inner-most thoughts and fears of the child(ren), a picture slowly emerges and, interspersed with some wonderful comedy moments, a number of thought provoking topics are explored….  the common theme throughout, however, is the often detrimental effect of the family upon the actions of the child.  A fine example of this being when the Narrator who, for most of play appears as a somewhat distracted and overtly anxious boy, sings a melancholy carol about rarely seeing his father nowadays. 

Through a fantastic twist at the end of the play, where each adult actor, having so far played the school child, then appears as the corresponding parent, we begin to realise, through the parent’s behaviour, why each child has behaved the way they have; some because they have been spoilt by parents who use material goods as a sticking-plaster to conceal their matrimonial misery, others because the parent is so caught up in their work life that the child has been completely neglected, misbehaving at school in an attempt to get some attention, even negative. 

The play is incredibly complex in its underlying messages and even more complex in its physical delivery and great credit must go to director, Michelle Hood, for its successful delivery, striking just the right tone at every stage.  Its songs, many of which are sung with completely different words by one group of ‘children’ while, at the same time, being sung with the original words by another, not only help the audience to understand the motivation and behaviour of each child but also help to keep the tempo fast and the play enjoyable throughout.  Adults playing children is something that can very often jar and can be difficult to get right.  However, despite the obvious seniority of many cast members (one with a very fine moustache, for example), this wonderful ensemble succeed brilliantly in making the audience believe that they are watching the class-room antics of a group of seven year olds.

The Mary Wallace is an intimate theatre and, as such, the back-stage areas are extremely compact.  Knowing this, one can only imagine what backstage acrobatics were taking place in the wings to achieve the huge number of frantic costume changes.  Huge credit must go to the actors, therefore, for their complete composure when returning to the stage following each frenzied stage hiatus.  They even managed to keep it together when an unfortunate tech malfunction repeatedly informed us all to “…take your seats as the performance is about to begin” while a ghostly baby cried from the wings… a small blip in an otherwise flawless tech performance and it all added to the comedy enjoyment! 

This is a show for all the family – the children among us enjoyed the very obvious moments, such as the escape of the class stick-insect, Peter Crouch, and his re-appearance as a giant mantis-like creature when projected onto the back wall, and the adults enjoyed the slightly more nuanced humour, such as the beheading of baby Jesus (insert stunned-face-emoji) as the Virgin Mary and Angel Gabriel tussled for the right to use their doll for the actual performance.  The story is highly relatable to all.  We have all been there, either as a pushy parent or having been pushed ourselves and Firth’s interpretation of this all-too-common occurrence is as enjoyable as it is thought-provoking.  If you’re looking for some festive entertainment this season, with a little something extra, look no further than Twickenham riverside.

Ian Moone, December 2022

Photography courtesy of RSS

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