Starry Night - a nativity play

Fri 7th – Fri 14th December 2012

reviews

Alexander Stone

at 19:01 on 9th Dec 2012

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As I write this review, I’m listening to the actors and actresses of Starry Night play and sing their way through seventeen classic Christmas hymns and carols. Yes that’s how good it was; I bought the CD afterwards. Starry Night is a wonderful production of the central Christmas tale of the blessed baby born in a stable. In this hour long play, the team from Bristol Old Vic showcase a wide range of performing talents, harmonising flawlessly as a unit to weave a show with the power to enthuse even the most hard-nosed Scrooge into the Christmas spirit.

Before the play was due to begin, the audience were welcomed into the theatre by the cast standing together singing a cappella renditions of carols. This served both as a wonderful scene-setter for the production to follow, and a distraction to minimise boring time waiting – essential for a play billed for ‘all the family’! What followed was an abridged story of the birth of Jesus, told from the point of view of three shepherds trying desperately to ward off the freezing cold of a long December night by pranking each other, telling stories, and making themselves useful to the travellers that seem to keep finding themselves in their field. The style was part pantomime with a recurring need to awake sleeping shepherds to avert impending disaster and part musical with regular assemblies for carols sung a cappella or accompanied by recorders (played by the cast themselves), and all wrapped together with a heart-warming tale of friendship and forgiveness.

The story of the birth of Jesus Christ is central to our modern conception of midwinter festivities. However, religious aspects of national culture are being increasingly criticised and sidelined, so any serious production of this Biblical tale has a task on its hands to remain engaging and relevant, but also religiously and culturally considerate. In my opinion, as an agnostic, this production performed the task admirably. This tale of Mary and Joseph maintained a positive moral message of striving to forgive and treat equally, without any excessive preoccupation with an abstract God, or any disciplinary moralising of a fallen humanity. To this end the play remained fresh and upbeat, jaunting through the story at a good pace, and ending in inspiration and hope.

Starry Night isn’t just a play to be seen, it is one to be heard. I have recently been to a concert of university barbershop singers, and sorry guys but the cast of Starry Night blew you out of the water. Their individual vocal ranges and harmonisation together were amazing. Voices projected throughout the auditorium, and I didn’t hear a missed note. Part of the cast would begin to break into a carol or hymn, to be quickly accompanied by the rest, all with apparent effortlessness, yet in perfect time and with joyous results. The choice of recorders as the only backing instrument was an excellent one. The old-English, slightly discordant, simple sound reflected the tale of virginity and pure birth as a means of humanity’s renewal. Even when the actors weren’t singing, the whole play was a cacophony of regional British accents; from the Northern innkeep, to the Devonian shepherds, Welsh angel Gabriel, and even a Scottish King.

Starry Night didn’t pretend to be anything it wasn’t in the production department. The only sound effects were generated by the cast; wind howling, Donkey’s hooves clopping etc... In fact the two-person Donkey costume was a masterclass in functional minimalism; a head for the front man who stands up straight, and a backpack with an oriental rug on it for the rear half who stoops along carrying Mary and her babe. Costumes were equally functional; conveying the poverty and cold of the shepherds, the divinity of the Angel Gabriel in white robes, and the wealth of the three Kings in satin fabrics and simple crowns.

Put simply, Starry Night is a fantastic production that will entertain and engage anyone who goes to see it. The story is pacey, funny and thoughtful. The musical numbers could stand alone in a concert themselves. The cast move about the stage, about their roles, and about the narrative as though they have lived this play for years. The only drawback is its short length; after one hour I was left craving more.

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