With the festive season is first approaching, it’s the perfect time to start thinking about Christmas films and theatre. Everyone has their favourite Christmas film, and a firm favourite of many is the Nativity! Series. With four films out there in the world, and the highly successful musical version out on tour for a third festive season, I was lucky enough to talk to the lady who started it all. Debbie Isitt is the writer, director and composer of the Nativity! films and has worked wonders in bringing her creation to the stage.
What inspired the story of Nativity? I love how it takes something normal, such as a school nativity, and turns it into something extraordinary.
The Nativity play, as a tradition, has always held a special place in my heart. As children, my sisters and all played Mary at our Catholic primary school and years later when my own daughter was at school doing Nativity plays, I began to think about using it as a backdrop or a key event for a Christmas film. My daughter’s nativities were full of hilarious accidental comedic moments and super sweet kids and I thought it would be great to try and blow it up into a story for the big screen. I loved the idea of underdog kids trying to pull off a spectacular show so I invented the story of Mr Maddens being a Christmas Grinch and telling a lie that spirals out of control forcing him to create something extraordinary out of the ordinary.
What was it like to bring Nativity from the screen to the stage? Did it feel like a natural move for the story?
Ever since the film came out in cinemas people kept saying to me ‘that would make a good stage show’ and I felt sure they were right largely because of the classic underdog story of ‘hopeless’ kids trying to put on a spectacular Nativity and the show within the show already having such a huge musical element. I also knew that a full blown musical of the story would offer opportunities to give voice to the characters inner feelings by writing songs especially for them like Mr Poppy’s ‘My very First Day at School’ or the children’s letter to Santa transforming into the song ‘Dear Father Christmas’. The first song I wrote for the show was ‘Hollywood Are Coming’ and I think I realised then that it was going to really work as a musical.
Nativity the musical has gone from strength to strength with each festive season. What is it about it that makes it so popular?
I honestly think that there is something for everyone in Nativity The Musical – lots of jokes and fun for kids but also lots of jokes for adults so it’s genuinely a family show. It’s also hugely spectacular and so full of joy that you can’t help but feel happier once you have seen it. It’s a show that makes you laugh and cry and sing along and we have brilliant actors and amazing genuine off the street kids and of course the aces up our sleeve – Mr Poppy and Cracker the dog! It’s just an honest, emotional, feel great experience.
You can’t talk about Nativity without talking about the incredible children. What is it like to work with these young stars?
I love working with children. I have been very blessed over the years to have so many brilliant and beautiful kids in my films and shows. They are as Mrs Bevan says ‘little pockets of stardust’ and they are afforded incredible freedom in my rehearsal to explore and create and they learn so much and grow in confidence and this is a privilege – to be involved in a child’s personal development and offer them an opportunity to tour the UK and perform for thousands of people.
It’s wonderful to see a show that is suitable for the entire family and when I saw Nativity a couple of years ago (I have tickets to see it later this month too), there were lots of children in the audience who were loving it. Do you think that it is important for children to experience the joy of live theatre?
I absolutely think it’s important that children see high quality live theatre that is relevant to their lives and transports them to a different world. Children are our future and we should value them highly – they are our audiences of tomorrow and moreover what they experience and learn from theatre can help make them emotionally stronger human beings.
How does it feel to have such a brilliant array of big-name celebrities taking part in the show this year?
It’s fun! I love Danny and Dani Dyer and I worked with them on the show last Christmas and they were brilliant and we had a ball. It’s lovely to see a Dad and daughter working together in such a lovely way. And I adore Rylan who is so clever and funny – he’s going to be amazing- and last but not least Mrs O – the fabulous Mrs Osbourne who I am a huge fan of making her theatre debut is so exciting! I can’t wait!
What was it like to write new songs for Nativity? Did it make a difference knowing that people would know some of the songs from the film?
We knew we wanted to keep the songs from the film in the Nativity stage show – they are well known and well loved especially the iconic ‘Sparkle and Shine’ so when myself and Nicky Ager began working on the other songs we had a really good foundation to build on. It’s been a wonderful process working on the new songs with such amazing talent in the casts and our music supervisor and orchestrator George Dyer – George is a huge talent and once the MD and band come into the equation it’s pretty mind blowing!
This year, you have welcomed a new Mr Poppy into the Nativity family and I think that Scott Paige is brilliant casting for the role. Has he made the part his own?
He really has! Scott Paige is an unassuming genius. I adore him. He has a natural childlike quality and is very warm hearted and open minded. It’s been a joy to watch him grow into the role – audiences adore him and so do I! I am so lucky to have 2 comedy giants in the role of Mr Poppy this year – both Scott on tour and Simon Lipkin in London – wherever you see the show you won’t be disappointed.
How does it feel to see the Nativity movies continue to prove so popular?
It’s been a pretty amazing decade for me and the Nativity franchise. It’s become my life. Each film is like a baby to me and I love them all. It’s a genuine family concern – we make the films in our home town of Coventry and yet they are known all over the world. It’s pretty awesome and I have worked with incredible talent so I’m very blessed. Long may the Nativity family continue to grow.
Days To Christmas