Saturday, December 03, 2016

The Nativity … What the Donkey Saw (Lyric Theatre until 14 January)

For the second year in a row, the Lyric have revived an old friend as the festive show for grownups to play alongside the family-centred one. Originally written in 2004 – the Grimes and McKee version that is – The Nativity … What the Donkey Saw has been sanded down and Trumpified to restore its contemporary feel amongst some of the stories that have dominated the news in 2016.

Whilst never terribly irreverent, there’s a little monkeying donkeying around with the Gospel storyline as the early chapters of Matthew and Luke are meshed together. Love blooms between Mary (played by Kerri Quinn) a young apprentice carpenter Joseph (Terry Keeley) who comes in each day to order his sausage roll in a bap from her Centra deli counter. [A Jew eating pork is just one of the anachronisms in the show.] With Caesar J Trumpius calling for a census to collect taxes (except from himself), the young married couple buy a budget donkey with a mind of its own and make the tiring journey to Bethlehem.

Despite the publicity photographs, there isn’t a tea towel in sight amongst the costume changes that come thick and fast. Alyson Cummins’ static wooden set is busy with a hotel bar, the stable, and a mezzanine garden all squeezed onto the stage along with the musical director Peter McCauley who is penned off in a corner to provide live accompaniment and a foil for the cast.

The show is driven by fourteen songs – including The 12 Days of Christmas, I wish it could be Christmas everyday, Fairytale of New York – with the lyrics amended and even some comedy actions added (“When a child is born”) to fit the on-stage story. The five cast members all have good voices, croon in tune and create remarkably good harmonies. Belfast theatre really has upped the quality of singing this Christmas. They may be available for weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs once the run is over. Deborah Maguire’s choreography gives the routines a sense of class, and the boy band number is scarily convincing.

Kerri Quinn gives Mary an injection of chutzpah while Terry Keeley’s Joseph is never really allowed to escape the script’s ‘nice but dim’ characterisation. The Wise Men – complete with their much needed “healing antiseptic uncture” – work better than the County Antrim-soundin’ shepherds in thon field wae their knees a-knockin’.

The Nativity is written by Conor Grimes and Alan McKee. The lispy archangel Gabriel isn’t the only character whose accent and mannerisms are familiar from their previous shows. But the pair don’t hoard all the best lines and avoid the temptation to make the show revolve around them. Tara Lynne O’Neill provides a great source of laughs playing six male characters (including a glitzy present-bearing gangsta rapper) with raised eyebrows, false moustaches and a sense of comic timing.

There’s no attempt to moralise or in the retelling of the story, other than to book ahead and get confirmation of your room reservation. Whether you’re sober or have had one too many Shortcross Gins in the Lyric’s new bar, there are plenty of laughs throughout the show and it’s a particular delight that The Nativity is a Troubles-free zone. Local mentions aren’t totally absent: the Continental Market at the City Hall gets a gentle slag. The performance also sticks to vernacular rather than swearing, and limits itself to a light smuttering of innuendo in a single cock-fighting storyline. My twelve year old enjoyed the show: that’s a serious recommendation from the ever-cynical youth of today.

The Nativity … What the Donkey Saw runs in the Lyric Theatre until 14 January 2017.

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