Riverside Theatre in the family way…

Ingeniously side stepping the pantomime genre, storytelling combines spectacularly with music and history in this year’s Riverside Theatre nativity play. Indulging our love of nostalgia, good fun and audience participation, the writer and director have recreated The Nativity in 1940s America. A small town a young couple reunite with their dear friend returning from the second world war, and he has an important message for Mary… 

The Riverside’s Delhi born artistic director Andrea Montgomery teamed up with Canadian playwright Stephanie Young to bring to life their personal interpretation of the Christmas story.

Montgomery and Young choose the not so distant past of 1945 as the backdrop for their Christmas story, introducing Mary, a waitress who wants to get a college education, Joseph, a cabinet maker willing to wait for her, and Gabriel, a pilot just home from the war. 

Their lives collide as they prepare for an initially unwanted baby. Herod is now a corrupt state governor fighting to be re-elected, while three wise guys—a radio presenter, a writer and a photographer—search for fame and fortune. Throw in a crowd of shepherd children and a talking donkey—well everyone has one nowadays—and the Riverside has the perfect nativity mix! 

Drawing on the values and style that made shows like The Waltons, the production is a patchwork of fresh dialogue, period characters and feel good moments. Riverside artistic director Andrea Montgomery stated: ‘We’re creating an experience that blends together a sincere family story, a sound landscape and all the visual and physical skills of the theatre.  We want to make striking pictures of past and present transform in front of your very eyes’.

While working on the script, Montgomery and Young recalled their own family histories, and Montgomery loved the idea of Gabriel being a second world war airman as her uncle, a pilot of a Lancaster bomber, was killed in service in 1944:

‘There were always stories being told about him within the family’, says Montgomery. ‘Those sorts of stories are part of what makes remembrances, or anniversaries meaningful. This year is also my auntie’s, his sister’s, 80th birthday, so it has been in my mind.’

As part of their brainstorming, the pair also delved into history books, covering everything from the long forgotten Christmas traditions of the Middle Ages, to the more familiar trappings of the modern classic, It’s A Wonderful Life.  Montgomery said, ‘I started looking at the wonderful medieval mystery plays portraying the life of Christ, and realised that spirituality continues to feature in modern films and TV.’ 

Young, currently based in London, then made a special visit to the Coleraine area to meet with local church leaders. The script respects and honours the profound nature of the original narrative. Using the theme ‘everybody gets it wrong sometimes’, the play equally raises questions that apply to modern society.  What does it mean for a young woman to give up her dreams of education and a career?  What does it mean for a man to know a baby isn’t his?  What happens after death?  How do we feel when people tell us there is another way to live? 

The cast brings together 55 young people from Northern Ireland’s north coast with five professional actors from London, Dublin and Belfast, including Marty Rhea, the star of Adrian Dunbar’s recent UK and Ireland touring production of Philadelphia, Here I Come! In preparation for his role as Gabriel, Marty Rhea is taking specialist safety training with a local parachuting club and a stunt fighting expert. And all the cast have been visiting the local icecream parlour to get a feel for 1940s social life.

Furthermore, The Nativity is more than just a play—the artwork for the production has been created by French cartoon artist Francois Gigaud from Coleraine’s twin town La Roche Sur Yon.  An exhibition of his work opens to coincide with opening night of The Nativity, which will run from December 3 to 23, 2004.

The Nativity’s sound designer Neil Douglas—better known for his work with music artists Pink, Stereophonics and Goldfrapp—is flying in especially from Prague to create a soundscape for the play based on the familiar noises of daily life in Northern Ireland. 

For further information and bookings, contact the Riverside Theatre box office on +44 (0)28 7032 3232.