The Nativity is given a 21st-century makeover

The story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus can be told in different ways. Andy Sharman visits an alternative Christmas show and finds a school that's doing its bit for the community

On the day I visit New City Primary in Newham, east London, a report is released declaring that community life in Britain has weakened and people have become "lonelier" in the past 30 years.

Not a bit of it in Newham, where the East End spirit is alive and well. The London borough holds the distinction of being the UK's most diverse – more than 100 languages are spoken there, from Albanian to Zhuang.

Some of its youngest residents were gearing up in the 111-year-old Victorian school house for New City Primary's Nativity. The star of the show, Georgie Babb, 4, was taken ill that very morning – in her words, "because I had a cough and then I got flu in my mouth" – but fought back to good health for the matinee performance. "That's New City spirit!" says head teacher Jackie Withnall.

It's a cliché that schools are the centre of their communities. But New City, in Plaistow, is a striking example.

It is like many inner-city primary schools in Britain. With 570 pupils aged three to 11, it is above-average in size, and growing. Withnall says 27 or 28 languages are spoken in the school, "though it changes all the time". Twenty per cent of the children have special needs – about the national average – and its test scores are just above the local authority and national averages.

But it is the school's social calendar – and its many theatrical performances – that impress. On the weekend before my visit, New City held its Christmas bazaar. It will soon lay on a winter wonderland for the pupils. Its harvest festival aids the elderly in the community, many of whom attended the school at some point in its long history, and they give back by hearing the children read.

And, largely thanks to a thespian head teacher and deputy, the school puts on at least one big production each term, which is a useful opportunity to bring in the parents.

"I find that anything where the children are involved is a draw," says Withnall, "because as a parent to go and see your child in a play – even if they've only got the smallest part – is fantastic. It makes you realise that the schools are really at the heart of the community – perhaps more than anything, because that's where people of all sorts get together."

The Nativity this year features a huge cast of 70 three- and four-year-olds from the nursery and reception classes, performing the slightly unusual, but firm favourite, Whoops-a-Daisy Angel. Characters include six snowflakes, numerous barn animals, a band of percussionists, and as many angels and shepherds as you like, meaning there's a part for every child. And having the youngest children perform means the school can encourage some of new parents to be involved in school life at an early stage.

The children belt out six songs during what must have been an exhausting 15-minute performance. "When you see very young children doing the nativity, whatever's happening outside, the credit crunch or whatever, there's something there among the lights and the shining and the costumes that tells you that children are our hope," says Withnall.

"There's that innocence, that awe and wonder. It's very hard to sit through those plays and see the wonderment on the children's faces without feeling... a little bit choked."

This Nativity even fits in with the curriculum. "Storytelling is a big part of what we do with early-years children," says Catherine Williams, foundation stage coordinator and nursery teacher at New City. "The Nativity is all speaking and listening, and even the singing and the dancing and the actions fit in with the early learning curriculum."

The story also comes with added meaning for the children. The Whoops-a-Daisy angel isn't perfect like the other angels: she is slightly dishevelled, clumsy, always losing things and has trouble counting. But she wins out in the end, delivering the important message of the birth. Even in this most diverse of schools, the religious significance is upheld in the Christmas story.

The costumes, the choreography, and the beautifully crafted stage are testament to the commitment of the staff and Williams, who is new to the school and was filled with pride at the performance and what it said about the school and the area.

"When you don't know the East End at all you think, 'yes but is it really that different to anywhere else?' But actually you come here, and it really is," she says. "People are just very interested in each other, even though it's a huge, diverse community. A lots of people say, 'Ooh, there's a sense of community'. But here, you can't argue with it – it hits you in the face."

NATIVITIES WITH A CONTEMPORARY TWIST

Getting Ready for Christmas, by Meg Harper

Aimed at Key Stage 2 children (seven- to 11-year-olds), this Nativity looks at the different characters' reactions to Mary's pregnancy. Promising "cross-curricular activities" the script allows children to explore the themes further in personal, social and health education, ensuring the play has some classroom relevance.

Topsy Turvy Christmas, by Lucy Moore

Another one for Key Stage 2 children, this introduces pupils to truanting and blue-sky thinking. Two angels are skiving off choir practice to watch television. Seeing events unfold on TV, the angels at first view God's plans for the birth of his child as crazy, until they realise that the first Christmas is, like, "so upside down it's the right way up!" Among the humour are songs in the style of rock'n'roll, rap and even calypso.

Jesus's Christmas Party, by Nicholas Allan

This Nativity, for any children from three up, takes on the tale of the innkeeper, who loves nothing more than a good 40 winks, but suffers a night of interruptions and lost sleep. He gets increasingly irate, but melts at the sight of the little baby. A musical version, by Roger Parsley, is available.

The Stars Come Out for Christmas, by Andrew Oxspring

This play is held in the style of a Hollywood – "Tinseltown" – awards ceremony, recognising the services of those who've made an "outstanding contribution" to Christmas. Nominees include Santa, Christmas cards and Christmas dinner. But who's the biggest star of them all? Why, Beth of course: the Star of Bethlehem.

Three more alternative favourites...

The Grumpy Sheep, by Caroline Hoile

The Donkey Seller, by Carrie Richardson and Clare Jones

Only a Baby, by Reginald Chapple

AS

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