Arts: Theatre - Plain, unvarnished gospel truth

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The Independent Culture
AS THE Millennium countdown reaches a deafening climax, it's no small irony that a humble play about the birth of Christ should provide a sanctuary from the cacophony. Bill Alexander and Peter Whelan's adaptation is a refreshingly unglitzy affair, free of allusions to the almighty significance of its scheduling vis-a-vis the Christian calendar.

The story is presented in a chronological, theatrically economical way and is placed in a more emphatically historical context than is usual. Tentatively fleshing out the accounts from the gospels of St Matthew and St Luke, the play starts with Joseph and Mary's engagement and ends with their return to Galilee from Egypt after Herod's death. The circuitous emotional journey stretches from doubt to belief, from cherishing the Messiah as the political rallying-point against Roman rule to anticipating a more peaceful salvation.

In terms of clarity, humour and intelligence, Nativity answers the needs of a mixed-age audience but Alexander's production has trouble projecting the play's curious blend of biblical quotation and modern, sometimes colloquial, speech. Sitting in the circle during a matinee attended by hundreds of miraculously attentive children, I often struggled to catch some of the lines, particularly from Tonia Chauvet's Mary.

Ruari Murchison's set is not nearly as easy on the 18 actors as it is on the eye. A huge, circular platform, surrounded by a tilted walkway, spin on a revolve to create a series of shifting alignments that fuse aspects of the celestial and the earthbound. The effect - particularly during such visual coups as the descent of Al Nedjari's lithe Gabriel - can be breathtaking. But the effort to keep their footing seems to take the wind out of the robed and sandalled performers.

Apart from some boomier members of the chorus, which sits downstage, the actors predominantly focus their energies into the acting area rather than out into the auditorium. This is fine when there is a lot of activity. The exuberant outbreaks of dancing that accompany the betrothal and the marriage scenes invite you into a world steeped in ritual, but the sheer remoteness of the cast makes it harder to approach the more intimate feelings of suspicion and doubt that Mary's intervening conception engenders.

Rez Kempton's clean-cut Joseph looks perturbed at the news of his fiancee's pregnancy, but his agonising about Mary's fidelity seems conveniently brief. That said, there are moments, especially among the shepherds and the quackish wise men, when disbelief enlarges into a wider sense of first- time wonder.

For all its faults, this Christmas treat should prove a more edifying and memorable experience than shop-til-you-drop.

To 30 Dec, 0121-236 4455