First Night: Nativity play from a sort-of dad's angle

Jesus My Boy Apollo Theatre London
CALL ME an old softy, corrupted by the Christmas spirit, but I didn't loathe every single second of Jesus, My Boy - a solo vehicle for Tom Conti, in which, with a grizzled beard, leather carpenter's apron and a lot of Semitic shrugging, he plays Jesus' sort-of dad.

Apart from being the role in which many a short-trousered lad makes his stage debut, Joseph is also an archetype of the tragi-comic cuckold, cast in the role of unwitting gooseberry while the Holy Spirit has its (un)wicked way with the Virgin Mary.

On a set that looks like the background to some "Wonders of Woodwork" CD-rom, Conti never manages to get especially agitated about this. When Mary informs him of the paternity, he shrugs.

And after a birth in which he's a klutzy, New Man participant, he punctures the sanctimony by admitting, palms upward, "I was hoping for a girl".

The proceedings never begin to match the treatment of Joseph's predicament you find in the medieval mystery plays or, say, in Auden's brilliant Christmas oratorio For the Time Being, where the character's plight mirrors the poet's own confused feelings of betrayal by his lover.

But, even in the latter half where your really begin to feel that this piece is hitching a shameless lift on the Christian story, there are moments that disconcert with their emotional directness. True, the gorge duly rose at Conti's Joseph's cutesy farewell - "Shalom. Bye-bye".

But I confess myself moved and held by Joseph's distress when he finds the boy Jesus in the temple, irritatedly slaps him, and is met with the desolating answer: "Did you not know? I am in the house of my father."

And it's an instance of rare large-mindedness in John Dowie's script that Joseph at one point sympathetically remembers another dad whom God put in an awkward spot. After all, there's an alternative show that could be called Judas, My Boy.

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