Manchester Theatre Awards

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Debbie Isitt on turning Nativity! into a musical

For anyone who hasn’t seen the hit Christmas film, what is Nativity! The Musical about?

It’s a classic story about a group of underdog kids in a challenging primary school trying to put on the best nativity play they can. Essentially, it’s about their teacher Mr Maddens, who hates Christmas because his girlfriend left him at Christmas time. He has lost his belief in himself and the children, and he’s really down about everything, until a mad classroom assistant comes into their lives.

Where did the idea come from?

I really wanted to do something about the school nativity because it’s been such a massive part of my life. When I was little it was the biggest deal in the world; to play Mary was everything. My sisters and I all played Mary, but only because my Mum was a hairdresser and she used to do all the teachers’ hair and they wanted to keep on her good side. When it was my daughter’s turn, I hung back and watched the stress and chaos as the teachers put together the play. It was the highlight of my year to watch my daughter in the school nativity – no matter what part she played. You could always rely on the children being funny and spontaneous.

It’s such a big tradition that I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been turned into something dramatic or comedic because it’s such fertile ground for drama and comedy.

Why did you choose to turn the hit movie into a stage musical?

I trained as an actor, and when I left drama school I was convinced I was going to do musicals, but I never did. The film is about a group of kids putting on a show – there’s even a musical within the film – so it lends itself to theatrical adaptation. It’s also a fantastic opportunity to explore the characters more. I wanted to try and create a fun, funny, moving theatrical experience and – with the talent of Nicky Ager - with some brilliant songs.

How challenging was it to reinvent the show for the stage?

I’m a deeply collaborative writer and director, and I always have actors improvising. Even though the characters were established by the film and the story hasn’t changed, the musical’s cast has got to make it their own by improvising during rehearsals. The story stays the same, but they bring so much more to it. The real challenge was balancing giving fans of the film the story that they love, but also allowing us room to experiment, explore new ideas and allow these actors to step into those shoes and make them their own.

How impressed are you with Simon Lipkin and Daniel Boys, who play Mr Poppy and Mr Maddens?

Musical theatre actors were an entirely unknown quantity to me. I didn’t know Simon or Daniel from Adam, but I have had the most fantastic experience with them. Now I can’t imagine anyone else doing it, it feels like they are completely right. I feel so lucky to have them – they are AMAZING!

Has anything surprised you during rehearsals?

Every day there are surprises. Every day there are new ideas, especially from the children who play the class, you get genuinely spontaneous suggestions and ideas. Then you put them in the show, because they’re great.

There’s an old saying about never working with children and animals. But you do both in this show…

They’re the vital ingredient. I love working with children and animals. Everyone should do it.

The show is touring this autumn and winter. As a director, will you tour with it?

I’ll visit, it’s my baby! You can’t just say goodbye to it. I wouldn’t want to. I’d love to see it in Manchester, I’d love to see it in London and in Southend. I will probably see it everywhere, because I’m so into audience reactions. I want to see how audiences receive it in each place, and I want to support the actors. Touring is tough; I did it for 15 years and it’s exhausting. You do need a bit of support.

How important are touring productions?

Up and down the country people want and need good theatre. It’s our duty and responsibility to try and provide it for them. I absolutely and wholeheartedly believe in regional theatre and touring theatre is in my blood. I’m delighted we’re opening the show in Birmingham, in the Midlands where the films were made and set, and where I live and work. To be able to take it up and down the country is fantastic.

You started your career in theatre before moving into films. Has this project reignited your love of the stage?

It’s been a long time since I’ve made theatre, but you don’t forget how to do it. In some ways it’s the same as film, because it’s about telling a story to an audience. That very simple line of communication is really important. But there are different challenges; I can’t get 10 live camels trampling through the inside of a theatre! But the world is your oyster on stage too. You can mime, or imagine, or suggest. It’s a really interesting place to be, and I’d love to do more of it.

Is there a new Nativity film on the way as well?

Yes! I can’t wait. I can’t tell you how exciting making the films is, because I get to work with children and animals, and I get to work with Mr Poppy who’s the best invention ever. I get to work with a whole new group of actors in every film I make. We improvise and I get to decide what the story is. I have a lot of creative freedom and that’s priceless. I absolutely love it.

From a small child, I’ve believed in Christmas being the most special time of year. The music that you suddenly hear all around you; the tingle down your spine when you think about the joy that people give to each other at that time of year. The idea of it being a time of good will is important because we live in tough times. I think people want to be uplifted at Christmas. If I can offer that to audiences, I know there are people out there who will receive it gratefully. That makes me so happy.

NATIVITY! The Musical is currently on UK tour until 6 January 2018. To book tickets visit, http://www.nativitythemusical.com/

 

Carmel Thomason