When Debbie Isitt was growing up in Birmingham, one of the highlights of the festive period was going to Birmingham Rep to watch the Christmas show. Which makes it particularly special that this year it is Debbie’s production Nativity! The Musical which will be on stage at the theatre.
Debbie was inspired to write Nativity! by her own experiences of being in school Christmas shows when she was a pupil at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Primary School in Harborne.
Based around the rivalry between two schools over their Christmas shows, the story is packed with colourful characters including class teacher Mr Maddens who is desperate to have a successful nativity and his new and zany teaching assistant Mr Poppy who sets about creating a festive show with a difference.
Debbie first launched Nativity! as a film in 2009 with Martin Freeman, Marc Wootton and Ashley Jensen. Set in Coventry and featuring local schoolchildren in the cast, it was a runaway success – and has led to three sequels.
Having first worked in theatre as an actor, writer and director, Debbie quickly realised the hit movie would also make a brilliant musical.
“Once I had made the film and we sat in cinemas and watched it with audiences, the nativity show at the end of the film was such a visceral experience for the audience that it just spoke to me. I thought ‘this is actually really a stage show within a film, what would it be like to make it a stage musical?’
“Once I had the idea and started sharing the notion of it, everyone I spoke to was saying they thought it would make a great stage musical and their children loved singing it. So it became something that I felt really passionate about.”
Debbie was keen for a local theatre to create the premiere and so she worked with Birmingham Rep to bring the show to the stage in November 2017 where it was immediately loved by critics and audiences alike. It has since toured the UK, had three London runs and been seen by more than a million people.
“The Birmingham Rep is one of the greatest theatres in the country and it’s somewhere that is very important to me because I grew up watching shows at the Birmingham Rep since I was about six or seven years old.
“It was absolutely brilliant for me when we first opened it there. As a seven-year-old child at the Birmingham Rep all those years ago watching the Christmas shows like the Wizard of Oz, to think that I was now instrumental in bringing a piece of musical theatre to that very same stage was really emotional, moving and tremendously exciting.”
From the beginning Debbie was keen to take control of the show, being not just its writer but also its director. “I trained as an actor and all of the first 15 years once I graduated was in the theatre so I’m a theatre-maker.
“I moved into film much later in my career and I became better known as a film-maker but this was an opportunity to come home to return to the theatre.
“It’s a story I know the bones of, it’s my story and I wanted to ensure that, particularly when Nativity! was a new musical and the original production, it was going to be what I wanted it to be, not what someone else wanted it to be. That was very important to me.”
Adapting it for the stage also gave Debbie and her co-writer and partner Nicky Ager the opportunity to create more songs.
“There’s still lots of dialogue, funny jokes and antics and all of that and the story is the same but there are these opportunities to enhance, say Mr Maddens and Jennifer’s love story because they have a beautiful duet.
“Also Mr Poppy gets to be not only hilariously anarchic and funny, he also gets to sing really catchy upbeat songs. So it gets you going, it gets you dancing, it gets you feeling like you want to get up on the stage with everybody. It’s a really entertaining show and it’s highly recommended for anyone of any age, anyone can come and see it and have fun. The music and the energy is contagious.”
For Debbie, the success of the Nativity! films and musical lies in the fact that so many adults and children have experienced school Christmas shows with all their traditions, rivalry and humour.
“It’s a safe and warm and reassuring kind of story, like primary school often is,” she says. “When you think how happy and safe you felt in that environment before the big bad world of the secondary school, the concrete jungle. I think it does take you back to that feeling of being seven or eight years old and innocent and you don’t know all about the world’s problems yet.
“And the funny things that happen with children when they are putting on shows, the things they say, the things that go wrong, that is all part of it as well. We’ve all experienced the mishaps at the school nativity or the school play and those videos which go viral on Twitter about the children being too loud or something hilarious. It’s that which makes this show so relatable to everyone.”
Nativity! The Musical presented by Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Jamie Wilson plays Birmingham Rep on November 19 to January 7, for full information and tickets go to Birmingham Rep