How on Earth does a critic review Nativity Rocks? It’s a film that is, by all conventional measures of criticism, an utter shambles. A film that defies logic, lacks structure and frequently frustrates. And yet, this is also a film that made an audience of under tens laugh, cry and vigorously applaud. As one boy came out he turned to his friend and asked: ‘what would you give that out of ten?’ The friend replied: ‘two hundred and ten’ and who am I to disagree?
Baring the revelatory subtitle ‘This Ain’t No Silent Night’, Rocks is the fourth in Debbie Isitt’s long running Nativity franchise and marks the best entry since the Martin Freeman led original. That may well speak louder of the dire second and third films than in praise of the latest but Nativity Rocks does see a return to relative innocence. Once again, the film finds the pupils of St Bernadette’s Primary School putting on a preposterous show in their home town – a much hyped Coventry – whilst bizarre and ill conceived subplots splinter out in all directions. It is a unique Christmas film that pairs a rock n roll reimagining of the Nativity with a pro-immigration comment on the Syrian refugee crisis and still feels the need to devote screen time to concerns of homelessness, childhood trauma and celebrity arrogance.
Having dominated every film since the original, Marc Wootton has finally bowed out as the insufferable Mr Poppy. But, fear not, the character is swiftly replaced here by his long lost brother Jerry (Simon Lipkin, who actually played Mr Poppy in the stage adaptation). On arriving at St Bernadette’s, Jerry is horrified to learn that his sibling has hot footed it off to Australia and yet quickly finds solace in an invitation to help the school stage a rock opera to support Coventry’s bid to be named ‘Christmas city of the year’. Isitt shoots Coventry with a forgiving eye, focussing on its Cathedral ruins over the concrete, post-war landscape, and channels optimistic idealism into every character, action and motivation within her predominantly improvised script. A sense of place is key here.
Oddly, child talent seems to be less prominent in Nativity Rocks than its predecessors but the film does earn points for casting a wonderful array of British talent in tiny roles – Ruth Jones, Jessica Hynes, Meera Syal, Anna Chancellor and Hugh Dennis all feature – and giving Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood his first movie appearance. Scenery isn’t safe from Horwood, whose hammy performance has a pantomime essence and seems to demand audiences boo and hiss. There are, however, two young performers with have central roles in the film, from whom Horwood could learn a thing or two about nuance. Rupert Turnbull plays Barnaby, a boy who has everything he could wish for bar the attention of his parents, whilst Brian Bartle is the adorable Doru, a Syrian stowaway who was separated from his father on arriving in the UK.
Linking the two, Lipkin proves a much less irritating man-child than Wootton, even through a barrage of toilet humour, thanks to his heightened emotional integrity. Lipkin is a natural comic and spins some rib tickling gags – ‘My name’s Jerry…as in Tom and’ – whilst nailing a slapstick sequence involving pancake making, a sly kiss and deflating balloon. As is often the case with improv comedy, a lot of this doesn’t work, which the cast might have noticed were they not having such a good time, and the freewheeling can grate.
Whilst half a dozen morals struggle for attention here, the central message of the film seems to be: ‘everybody deserves a family at Christmas’. To that end, it’s not so hard to see where all this is headed. The road bumps characters encounter on their journey to said finale may well leave parents with head in hands – people walk fifty odd miles from Coventry to Shropshire in ten minutes in this world – but if you can go with the lunacy, you’re in for a sweet ride. Children will adore Nativity Rocks.