Theatre reviews: Nativity! | The Comedy About a Bank Robbery | We Interrupt This Programme

IF HIGH drama is what you're after, then the school nativity play should be a fine place to start. As any teacher can tell you, pride, ambition, disappointment, fear and loathing all play their part in the average infants' show; and back in 2009, the school nativity play was given the full showbiz treatment in Debbie Isitt's film Nativity! a feel-good musical that has since given birth to two television sequels, hugely popular with both children and adults.
Simon Lipkin as 'Mr Poppy' in Nativity : The MusicalSimon Lipkin as 'Mr Poppy' in Nativity : The Musical
Simon Lipkin as 'Mr Poppy' in Nativity : The Musical

Nativity!, King’s Theatre, Glasgow ***

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, Theatre Royal, Glasgow ****

We Interrupt This Programme, Oran Mor, Glasgow ***

Ross Mann and Elizabeth Caproni in We Interrupt This ProgrammeRoss Mann and Elizabeth Caproni in We Interrupt This Programme
Ross Mann and Elizabeth Caproni in We Interrupt This Programme

Now, the stage version of the film and television series is on a UK tour, with Simon Lipkin – star of Nativity 3 – reprising his television role as the lovable Mr Poppy, the daft new classroom assistant who, Mary Poppins-like, brings a touch of magic both to the children in Mr Madden’s Class at St Bernadette’s Primary, Coventry, and to the jaded lives of the adults who care for them.

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The plot, such as it is, involves harassed Mr Madden’s attempt to keep upsides with a local posh school by fibbing that his ex-girlfriend, now a Hollywood producer, is coming to St Bernadette’s to see a new, spectacular nativity show he’s producing. The point of the show, though, lies mainly in the upbeat singalong songs, the irresistible performances of the 11 funky kids in Mr Madden’s class, and Simon Lipkin’s celebrity presence, utterly adored by a packed audience; and when Nativity! rolls up at the Festival Theatre in a couple of weeks, Edinburgh audiences are likely to turn out in equally enthusiastic numbers, for a family show that features a little wit, a decent measure of goodwill, and lashings of pure showbiz cheese.

It’s not until next May that The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is set to appear in Edinburgh; but it’s already delighting audiences in Glasgow with the latest show from the company that has won a devoted following among fans of farce and slapstick with The Play That Goes Wrong, and its sequel Peter Pan Goes Wrong.

If anything, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is the strongest of the three, leaving behind the company’s previous self-consciously theatrical targets for a no-holds-barred send-up of the American heist-movie. The tale is set at some vague mid-20th-century date in Minneapolis, where an escaped criminal and a gang of corrupt prison warders plot to rob the local bank of a huge diamond; and both the writing and the physical comedy scales breathtaking heights of ingenuity, as a cast of nine pleasingly stereotyped yet completely unpredictable characters weave around the stage, each other, and the diamond, in ever more complex patterns.

It’s still difficult for those of us who are not slapstick fans to stay awake in long scenes that depend entirely on the complete credibility of ridiculous disguises, or on the joys of a folding bed that keeps folding away at inopportune moments. The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is a masterpiece of its kind, though, from writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, with director Mark Bell; and by the time the story reaches the scene set in a duct above a birds’ eye view of the bank office, the jaw fairly drops at the relentless skill and inventiveness of it all, for no purpose at all but pure fun, and a bit of harmless theatrical money-spinning.

At Oran Mor, meanwhile, this season’s political cabaret show by the DM collective – named in memory of Play, Pie And Pint founder David MacLennan – is We Interrupt This Programme, in which the venerable David Anderson leads a team of much less experienced performers in a send-up of how television news presents and distorts the reality of our times. In its very first song, the show confronts the dilemma that in the age of Donald Trump and Fox News, political satire is essentially dead, outgunned by a totally absurd reality.

Its problem, though, is that although it acknowledges the difficulty, it never finds a convincing solution to it; but ploughs on trying to mock the unmockable, while the songs – mainly by Anderson –betray an ever darker heart of despair, from a generation that once hoped music and comedy could change the world, but now senses a human defeat more absolute than anything it could have imagined. - JOYCE MCMILLAN

Nativity! is at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 28 November-2 December. Bank Robbery That Goes Wrong is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 14-18 May. We Interrupt This Programme, run ended