Failed actor-turned-primary school teacher Paul Maddens (Freeman) is aghast to be assigned the Nativity play after a previous debacle. When an old rival (Watkins) brags that a Hollywood producer is coming to film it, desperation and dance numbers ensue.
As she did in wedding wheeze Confetti, Debbie Isitt assembled TV veterans with comedy improvisation chops and let them riff — this time in a tale to charm anyone who ever played Mary, Joseph, or the donkey in the annual school Christmas ritual. With admirable nerve she then recruited a host of ‘regular’ children between six and ten years old from open auditions in the Midlands to play the eager-to-please moppets put through their paces in despairing Mr. Maddens’ increasingly overblown musical effort. The gamble pays off, with the kids all natural, terrific and cutely stealing the show. It won’t be just proud parents shedding a tear when the junior ensemble don their angel costumes and strut their stuff.
Not that the adults aren’t good, too. Martin Freeman keeps his head and the focus of the piece. He engagingly presents the personal progress of a disappointed man projecting his low expectations onto the children in his charge, anxiously finding himself caught up in a lie that spirals absurdly out of control and, appropriately enough, having an epiphany that enables him to pull off something special. Marc Wootten is also winning as idiotic assistant teacher Mr. Poppy, his enthusiastic buffoonery balanced with a touching sweetness. Kudos, too, to Jason Watkins, playing Maddens’ nemesis, who actually created and directed his more precocious, ‘posh’ pupils’ slick rival production, the hilariously bizarre Herod!. Elements of farce and slapstick combine with the realistic humour of an Outnumbered: “Do I have to wear a stupid costume?” “Yes, it’s the Nativity, you can’t look cool.” One is sufficiently caught up in the teacher’s dilemma to be genuinely relieved when things culminate in a spectacle enacted in the ruins of old Coventry Cathedral that is preposterously kind of wonderful.
Probably inevitably, things flag in scenes allowed indulgently to run on too long. These include a visit to Hollywood in a delusional bid to make the dream reality, although it’s nice to see Clarke Peters cameo as a studio exec. And there is perhaps a tad more cuteness than strictly necessary, even if the kids are adorably genuine. It’s also hard to argue this is particularly cinematic when it would sit perfectly cosily on the BBC or C4 at Yuletide. But one can’t accuse it of lacking heart.
Funny, sweet and family-friendly seasonal fare.