Review: The Nativity...

Like Give My Head Christmas Peace, only better, Conor Grimes & Alan McKee's The Nativity: What The Donkey Saw, directed by Frankie McCafferty, succeeds as a series of sketches featuring the traditional, the topical, the used-to-be topical, the contemporary and the everyday.

It's the story of Jesus, Mary and Joseph retold as a large collection of laughs.
Originally staged in 2004, The Nativity has been revised and updated by Grimes & McKee to bring it more in line with the present day. But the obligatory and amusing references to Donald Trump are only a tiny element of a fine visual, musical and comic showcase in which every participant on and off stage wholeheartedly exhibits their talents. Needless to say, Belfast's Lyric Theatre, almost packed to the rafters, entirely approves.

It all begins with a sly, doom-laden jazz piano from Rams' Pocket Radio's Peter McCauley, leading into the introductory voice over of Pamela Ballantine – yes, that Pamela Ballantine – as God ("That's right – I'm a woman!" she proudly proclaims), before the story of how Terry Keeley's Joseph and Kerri Quinn's Mary met at the latter's deli counter begins (don't ask, just go with it), to the tune of The Twelve Days Of Christmas, with naturally clever alternative lyrics.

Winning in its cultural familiarity, locally and classically, this chuckle-heavy show stopper kind of sums up the core of the production: a popular Christmas narrative by way of sketches, musical or otherwise, that look to the past and present.
The likes of Good King Wencelas, Fairytale Of New York, Merry Christmas Everyone and When A Child Is Born get similar treatment, with equally satisfying effect. And when one doesn't laugh at the words, one marvels at the entire cast's singing, most notably the strong and clear vocals of Keeley and Quinn.

That's one of the best things about The Nativity even as we smile at the substantial humour, there is much to appreciate, even enjoy, elsewhere.
Namely, the set design and pyrotechnics, which are vital when it's time for Joseph & Mary's "donkey" to make an appearance (because they can't afford a camel!) or for Keeley to "rise into the sky" like an angel only to not quite be able to turn the right way around. (They'd have no problems there, we're told, if only the budget had been bigger.)

Such is the joy in inventive props, especially in this context. Where else can you see Muff and Inch on the same sign as Bethlehem and Nazareth?
But I'm getting sidetracked. For all the clever winks, nods and technicalities in the script or on show, it is the cast who shine most. Quinn's extraordinarily expressive face is put to terrific use alongside Keeley's engagingly humorous naivete.

Their trials and tribulations are dependably supported and enhanced by the fine, multiple character playing comedic trio of Grimes, McKee and Tara Lynne O'Neill. Grimes and McKee approach their many parts with seasoned professionalism, a laid-back, think-I've-seen-and-know-it-all approach that nicely contrasts with O'Neill's marginally more haywire energy. Performing numerous male roles presents boundless thrills for the one-time EastEnder - the look on her face when her barman, Spit (yes, he spits), is found to have eaten a carrier pigeon is absolutely priceless.

If one were to be picky, perhaps a chance encounter with Pontius Pilate is a little too clever for its own good, and the second half feels more spirited and free-flowing than the first. But the latter can be excused as a means of the cast finding their way into the material - material that generally knows what tickles the funny bone and amplifies it for maximum pleasure.

The Nativity is perfectly in tune with these tough times - with such contrasting emotions everywhere, what better relief is there than laughter? And laugh we do.

Simon Fallaha

The Nativity: What The Donkey Saw runs at Belfast's Lyric Theatre until 14 January. More information can be found at

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