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Tim Key: 'There's nothing quite like opening night - the sound of crying coming from the wings'

The opening night of my local nativity play, that is

I went to a nativity play last week down in south London. It was a one-off performance so tickets were like gold dust, but my niece was in it and she managed to score me a couple of comps. Nice and close to the front, too. I sat bearded and smug, eagerly anticipating what this relatively young company had cooked up.

There’s nothing quite like opening night. The buzz of excitement; a room gripped with possibilities. And this was no different. The atmosphere was thick with apprehension. Mostly in their thirties or babies, the audience waited patiently for the off. One could only imagine the last-minute preparations of the actors. For many it was their stage debut and that’s a big deal for a three-year-old. I couldn’t help picturing them backstage, their nerves in shreds; some of them, inevitably in floods. Also, because of the geography, a lot of the crying travelled through from the wings. These guys were clearly passionate about their work. They wanted to get cracking.

At around half 10, a teacher came on and said a few words about his charges. He had found working with them inspirational and hoped we would enjoy the fruits of their labours. He wore a friendly jumper and seemed to be managing expectations. He needn’t have bothered. The band struck up, the audience commenced filming, and, one by one, the stars trotted out. I necked my mulled wine and leant forward in my seat.

Now, when I say my niece was in it, I’m being a little coy. ‘In it’ barely covers it. My niece was the bloody lead. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the story. Basically, a pregnant woman holes up in a stable and gives birth to a  religious icon while various monarchs and sundry other hangers-on gather round and marvel at the procedure. Well, put it this way, my niece played the pregnant woman. She’d clearly been identified as a talent; now here she was, clutching a doll, all eyes on her.

This was a huge responsibility for Eliza. She’s only two or three and now she has to get to grips with Mary, an Israeli in her mid-twenties. I’ve done some acting in my time and once had to play a 40-year-old doctor, which wasn’t easy. But Eliza’s natural playing age is what? Three to five? And now here she is absolutely nailing Mary. Clearly she had researched the role. She looked sullen, confused, dignified. An enormous responsibility seemed to weigh heavy on her shoulders. Occasionally she would turn to her husband, her expression unreadable. You felt his pain.

While Eliza continued to boss it on a hay bail, the supporting cast rattled around her, the spectrum of acting ability and discipline gargantuan. Shepherds waddled about with crooks, talking to one another or laughing or crying or doing a mixture. There were about 10 kings, floating about in crowns, desperate to hand Eliza’s baby some myrrh. Some youngsters dazzled as stars, other, less talented kids, dressed as sheep and rolled on the floor. Carnage! And at its epicentre, Eliza. In the midst of all this horseshit, it was her stillness that drew the eye. My father, her grandfather, who’s done his fair share of Gilbert and Sullivan over the years, chain-munched mince pies and occasionally muttered “Perfect”. He got that right.

The piece hung together well enough. The story is so well known that even when they went four or five minutes without doing their lines or singing, you knew where you were. And if a song really needed singing, a teacher would step up and belt it out, and the kids would wiggle around in support.

Afterwards, I assembled at Stage Door, desperate to get a glimpse of the players. But they weren’t forthcoming. Fine. They were exhausted. They were stars. Fair play. I’ll catch up with Eliza at Christmas.