The Corstorphine Road Nativity ****

The Festival in Edinburgh seems keen on starting a tradition of alternative Christmas productions.  Last year they hosted Dundee Rep’s Sunshine on Leith, and this year we get The Corstorphine Road Nativity.  Yes, there is a Christmas theme in this one, but it isn’t akin to anything else currently playing.

Based on writer Tim Firth’s famed 1999 TV special, the story follows the children in Miss Mochrie’s class as they play, argue, fall in love, fight and conspire with each other while trying to put on a nativity play.  All of the school stereotypes are here: the bully, the know-it-all, the special needs kid, etc.  The trick is that adults play the children while acting on an oversized set and use props that dwarf everyone.

In a way, I’m coming from a completely different angle than most.  I was not in Britain when the original aired; I’ve only seen clips.  And as America is mostly in a ‘separation of church and state’ kick, none of my schools did any religious-themed plays (in fact, we never had Christmas or Easter holidays but winter and spring breaks).

I mention this for one reason, and that is that I was not able to enjoy the sense of knowingness that most in the audience seemed to relish.  This seemed true also with a lot of younger people I’ve spoken with who themselves hadn’t performed in nativity plays.  The silliness was apparent, as was the relationships the children had with each other, but the added layer of nostalgia that many have had with this was unfortunately absent from my viewpoint.

But in a way, this fact also puts me, perhaps, in a better position to judge the play and the production simply on its merits, and from that I can happily report that it’s a lot of fun.  Director Joanna Read has a field day with the concept of adults-playing-children and comes up with a large range of inventive ideas.  She is assisted by 10 excellent actors, all of them game for overplaying the age and type of their characters, and a design concept that is playful.

However, there is one glaring flaw, and it is with the ending.  Though most probably know the twist at the end, in the spirit of fair play I shall refrain from spilling the beans.  However, I do have to say that I found the final scene played like deadweight, lacking most of the creativity and energy that had filled most of the play.  It’s the right way to end such a story, but it could have been done in half the time and handled in a much better way; I find everyone at fault in this: Firth for over-writing the scene, Read for making it feel static and the cast for failing to match anything they’d done prior.

It’s a shame that it ends on such a bum note, because for the most part The Corstorphine Road Nativity is a pure delight, very funny, highly creative in its theatricality and played by one of the best ensembles of the year.  Forgive its overdone ending and enjoy.

Playing at the Festival until December 19.

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