Nativity! – Is it Ho! Ho! Ho! or Bah, humbug for festive comedy?

Nativity plays: a joy, perhaps, for the parents of the little treasure up on stage playing Mary or Joseph or Third Sheep, purgatory, probably, for everyone else.

How then to sit through a film that revolves around this festive tradition? That’s the stickler posed by Debbie Isitt’s new comedy Nativity!

Martin Freeman’s grumpy primary school teacher Mr Maddens, the film’s protagonist, is firmly of the ‘Bah! Humbug’ persuasion when it comes to Christmas, his attitude to the season permanently soured by getting dumped by girlfriend Jennifer (Ashley Jensen) under the mistletoe.

So he’s far from happy when his headmistress (Pam Ferris) badgers him into directing their Coventry school’s annual nativity play – the last time he tried, the show was an embarrassing failure, a flop made all the more irksome by the triumph of the posh independent school up the road. Even more gallingly, Maddens’ long-standing adversary Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins), a rival since the days when he, Shakespeare and Jennifer were all aspiring actors, is the teacher behind the private school’s annual nativity hits.

Nativity! - Jason Watkins, Ashley Jensen & Martin Freeman play struggling actors in Debbie Isitt’s film comedy

This lengthy plot set-up shows that Isitt is asking us to swallow a mighty big portion of back-story, one that is almost as indigestible as a third helping of mince pies, but it does kind of explain why Maddens should casually boast to Shakespeare that Hollywood is taking an interest in his show. (I forgot. There’s even more back-story to add: Jennifer decamped to Los Angeles after the dumping and is supposedly now a hotshot producer.)

Maddens doesn’t expect his lie to go any further, but he hasn’t reckoned on the intervention of dippy classroom assistant Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton), who is soon whipping the kids into a frenzy of excitement. Before long, the whole town is agog. Can Maddens put on a knockout Christmas show and can he tempt Jennifer back from Los Angeles or will everything end in disaster?

Nativity! - Marc Wootton’s puppyish classroom assistant, Mr Poppy, and the primary school kids in Debbie Isitt’s film comedy

No prizes for guessing the outcome – given that every plot or character development in the film is easily anticipated from start to finish.  Indeed, Nativity! is so entirely predictable that it comes as a surprise to learn that the script was largely improvised, as was Isitt’s last film, her wedding mockumentary Confetti.

Fortunately, Freeman and Wootton (who also starred in Confetti) hold things together. Freeman’s weary under-achiever shtick is familiar from The Office, but he’s an effective straight man to Wootton’s daffy classroom helper, an eager to please buffoon even more childish than the children, who grin and caper through the nativity play’s auditions like X-Factor wannabes. Whether you think the kids are cute or sickly-sweet will be down to taste. You may, of course, agree with WC Fields, who famously quipped: “I love children, but I could never eat a whole one’.

On general release from 27th November. 

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