Travelling day and night from afar

Mary's Asian. Joseph is white. And the Three Wise Men are 'C of E, Sikh and Muslim'. Robert Butler hails a very Nineties nativity play

As the children file into the hall, wearing blue sweaters and grey trousers or grey skirts, the sound system plays BandAid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Yes, of course they know it's Christmas, and according to one of the school governors, that means three things: "off school", "presents" and "films on TV". But do they know what Christmas is about? In an infants school in Slough, 200 children, having sat down in seven orderly rows, are about to find out.

Lea Infant School is 78 per cent Asian. We know we're in the school hall because it says so on the door outside in English, Urdu and Punjabi. Most pupils in the school are bilingual. They speak more languages than some of the teachers. There's no Christmas dinner because most of the school is vegetarian. In this multicultural nativity play, Mary is Asian, Joseph is white and the donkey is Asian too. The Three Wise Men, as one teacher points out to me with pride, have three different religions: "C of E, Sikh and Muslim.

"Good morning everyone!" says Mrs Hennessy. "Good morning, Mrs Hennessy!" chant the children. To the right of the stage stand the members of class 2:2 and class 2:4. They are six- and seven-year-olds with rings of tinsel, tea-towels and cardboard crowns on their heads. Beneath the neck, the dress- code is more relaxed. There are stripy dressing gowns and T-shirts (one says: "I'm a QPR toddler"). They have clearly not followed Biblical Costumes for Church and School, a solemn work, which in the course of offering advice on drapes, burlap tunics, white rayon, abas and chlamys, warns that "a halo of any kind looks effeminate". Next to the cast stand young musicians with triangles, bells and coconut shells in front of them on the gym bench. It looks like a fairly familiar nativity scene.

Except that the parents do not conform to the stereotypical nativity- play audience. They are not standing up, grinning, waving, blowing kisses and calling out their children's names. Sir Richard Eyre once told the cast of Guys and Dolls to enjoy the audience reaction because it would never get as good as this again. I was there at the first night of the revival of Guys and Dolls. The audience loved the show. But it still didn't quite match the emotional hysteria at the church next to my local nursery school, when the parents saw their little loved ones walk up to the altar rail. In that nativity play, the cast only had to make an entrance for the audience to rave. "I've been waiting for this for four years," one mother told me, at another nativity play, which featured her three- year-old twins as an angel and a shepherd. "She has," confirmed her husband, "ever since the scan."

It may never have flitted across the minds of some of the mothers here when they were expecting that one day their daughter might be Mary, or that one day, their son might be a donkey. So why is Lea Infant doing a nativity play? "We try to acknowledge all the major religions," says the head teacher, Jenny Arwas. In assembly this term they have already celebrated Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, and the birthday of Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru who taught (appropriately enough for here) that there is one God, and different religions are like different roads leading to the same point. They have also celebrated Chanukah. "We don't have any Jewish children in the school," says Mrs Arwas, "but it's a major religious festival." In the nicest possible way, assembly has become a trade off: we'll do yours, or anyone else's for that matter, if you do ours.

Mrs Arwas, who is Jewish herself, and grew up in Leeds during the 1950s, believes tolerance is not enough. That has a negative connotation. Respect is the word she prefers. Muslim parents come to watch their children perform in a nativity play because they know that at the end of Ramadan, other parents will be coming to watch their children perform a celebration to mark that event. Behind the parents, pinned on the walls, are the marks of multiculturalism. A display for Chanukah explains that Chanukah is a happy time. People give each other presents. The display for Diwali explains that Diwali is a celebration of the victory of good over evil. The display for Christmas explains that at Christmas: "We send cards. We visit friends and families. We give presents."

Most nativity plays takes the best bits from two gospels. St Matthew gives us the Three Wise Men but not the shepherds. St Luke gives us the shepherds but not the Three Wise Men. There are a number of printed versions you can choose from which offer further variations. Charles H Sellars's As With Gladness, for instance, includes a fanciful interlude that envisages Judas meeting Herod in Hell. Richard Tydeman's Dawn on Our Darkness mixes high and low styles. There's touching verse as Gabriel announces: "In Nazareth I seek/ A maiden meek." There's hard-bitten prose too. Before setting off to Bethlehem Joseph warns Mary: "This will be no picnic." Thomas Doran's Light is Come lists eight male principals, five female principals and points out the need for "super-numeraries". If you don't get cast as Joseph, Mary or Gabriel in Light is Come, don't despair: you could audition for Barnabas, Nathaniel, Obadiah, Ezra, Ben-Ezra, Zachary, Gaspar, Balthasar, Melchior or the serving maid. Light Is Come also has the virtue of presenting the story in "simple modern English". In the stable, the serving maid addresses Mary in the simple modern English way that serving maids have: "Blessed Mary, here are Kings from afar come to pay homage to our Saviour."

Judging from the stapled pages that Mrs Hennessy holds, classes 2:2 and 2:4 are doing the Hastily Handwritten version of the nativity story. This means that anyone who wanted to video the show could do so, because they wouldn't be in breach of copyright. But this isn't one of those nativity plays where the children face a barrage of video cameras taping the entire proceedings, as if the main idea was to grab some footage now and edit it all later. The parents here are the best behaved.

This nativity is simply told. Joseph (Anthony Connor) mimes working at his carpentry. Mary (Rabab Irshad) mimes sweeping the floor. Six narrators stand on two blocks and share out the lines. They take a sentence each. As each narrator embarks on his or her line, Mrs Arwas pushes her palm up in the air in an effort to pump up the volume. The Angel Gabriel arrives, surrounded by other angels, and tells Joseph and Mary that "God has chosen you to have a special baby".

Anthony Connor's Joseph is remarkably unperturbed by this news. In the medieval Miracle cycles, this is a big comic scene known as Joseph's Trouble, where Joseph, played as an elderly man, finds himself beset with doubts and anxieties about quite how Mary got pregnant.

In the Wakefield version of the Miracle cycle, a 14th-century Joseph asks Mary who gave her the child. She says: "Sir, ye, and god of heven." This does not convince Joseph. "Myne, Mary?" Says Joseph, in what one assumes is a fairly unfriendly tone. "Do way thi dyn", which translates roughly as "do me a favour!"

At Lea Infant, the happy couple is more concerned about getting to Bethlehem. Rather sweetly, they take their donkey with them.

Neither of them ride it. In this production, the journey becomes a big set-piece number in the show. Everyone sings "Little Donkey" and the children with the coconut shells bang them together. Joseph, Mary and the donkey walk towards one end of the hall, walk back towards the other end of the hall, then return to the centre. Ishfaq Hussain's Donkey has long ears, a brown woollen tail and remains impressively in character, bent double, for the entire 110-mile journey.

When the three of them reach the front of the stage, several innkeepers line up to tell them there's no room at the inn. It's a popular role, so it's sensible to let as many people as possible have a go at it. This is the moment, as recounted by Shirley in Willy Russell's Shirley Valentine, when Shirley's son Brian decides to ad-lib a bit and yells at the little Innkeeper: "Full up? Full up? But we booked!"

At Lea Infant, Joseph, Mary and the Donkey get shown to the stable (a wooden crib) which is centre-stage. Shepherds visit them, carrying a lamb. Then the Wise Men point to the back wall of the hall where a silver star has been stuck on a black sheet of paper. The Wise Men make their long journey from Persia, through the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates, in a matter of seconds.

None of them wear long robes. This avoids the embarrassing problem, highlighted in Biblical Costumes for Church and School, "of feet becoming entangled in long robes when a character rises from a kneeling position."

The Wise Men hand over gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then everyone joins in and sings. The songs or carols have to be chosen carefully. Obviously not Onward Christian Soldiers. But Away in a Manger, for instance, can give offence also because of the reference to "the little Lord Jesus". There's no mention at Lea Infants of the Virgin Birth, Herod or the Massacre of the Innocents.

This is a simple story about a couple going on a trip, having a baby, and receiving lots of presents. So they sing: "Christmas is joyful. Christmas is full of fun. Christmas is happy."

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