The most moving production of the year, the one where tears of joy fill your eyes. The one with the longest and most heartfelt audience applause too. No, not The Royal Shakespeare Company, nor The Globe … but the annual school nativity play.
This year it was the first one for my youngest grandson. He was a lamb. He’s only three too. The little boys in his nursery group were lambs, and the little girls were twinkling stars. Not that there’s gender marking. No photos of course, they’ve been banned for years which is a relief. A decade ago the entire play was a sea of flashing cameras and at least five people pushing their way around with video cameras. Now the schools film it officially. Cameras are banned. Obviously people still wave as their offspring anxiously scan the audience. I was seen easily being bald and tall. ‘Did you see granny?’ he was asked, ‘No,’ he said perplexed, ‘’cos they turned the lights off.’ As they do.
This is embedded so deeply in our culture and indeed in the history of drama. The very first plays in Britain (after Roman times) were probably nativity plays in churches, before they expanded into the Medieval mystery cycles. A head teacher told me a few years ago that the school nativity was a wonderful way of producing “team spirit.” It’s also an experience of performance that might even lead to greater appreciation of theatre in later life.
The simple power of the story marches on … angel of the lord, no room at the inn, the stable, while shepherds watched their flocks, the three wise kings. Above all, the hope that a newborn baby brings into every life everywhere. There have been films (three in the recent series) and many TV sketches. Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Em with Michael Crawford did a notable Christmas nativity play episode. Anecdotes about incidents in school nativities abound, a favourite being the helpful improvising inn keeper who explained there was no room at the inn, and added “We’re very busy. It’s Christmas Eve.”
Whatever songs there are, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Away In A Manger are the usual first ones. In primary and pre-school productions, the very youngest kids start out as lambs and twinkling stars. They may eventually become a host of angels a year or two later, or specific animals, before the dizzy heights of speaking parts are reached. Because of class sizes, Mary and Joseph may be greeted by the entire contents of Noah’s Ark rather than just sheep, cattle and a donkey.
We can’t be the only ones who carefully file away the programmes in a memory box, fondly imagining that in some future chat show when they are stars, that first performance will be commemorated with the programme filling the screen.
I recall reaching the giddy heights of second king myself at age eight and again at ten. I must look naturally regal. I had the Frankincense. Gold went on to lecture in drama. I never looked back to see who Myrrh was. Or what Myrrh was. Today we had just two kings, but this is inevitable in the colds season.
I had a long conversation about it with a female actor in one of our educational videos. She went to an all girls school and repeatedly played King Herod (not seen in the younger versions). The teacher explained it was because she was the only Jewish girl, presumably so she wouldn’t have to sing a carol. She thought about it, and said “Hang on, King Herod wasn’t ethnically Jewish,so is the only character in the entire story who ISN’T Jewish!’ She said she also learned that the villain is the most fun part to play, an experience that serves actors well later on in life.
We have swelled with pride as three kids and four grandkids made their debuts. My older grandson didn’t distinguish himself too well as an angel at age four, in that he fell fast asleep during the play. I’ve seen far more embarrassing incidents in other nativities. Another grandchild as a twinkling star at the front, kept her back to the audience, watching the play unfold.
No incidents today. A few dropped lines, but they had that covered with a teacher narrating. No embarrassing moments either. Full marks to the teachers who put all this together.
Well today, our youngest one stood up and sat down in nearly all the right places, clapped his hands. He did get caught in front as the curtain closed but scrambled through with aplomb. Yes, I will place him above Mark Rylance, Anthony Sher and Kenneth Branagh this year. The performance I have most enjoyed. Mind you, his five year old sister opined that she had been better at his age. Phew! Critics!