Reviewed by: Martin Gray

Failed actor turned primary school teacher Paul, rattled by failed actor turned posh primary school teacher Gordon's boasts about his award-winning Nativity plays, claims that his own has attracted interest from Hollywood. Namely, failed actor turned producer Jennifer, the love of Paul's life before she left him five years earlier.

Since then life has lost its sheen and with each new day Paul is passing on his gloom to the kids he teaches. Bright young things are starting to mirror his perception of them as no-hopers, but as the stupid, unthinking fib gains legs, and the whole of Coventry expects a big screen version of the local Nativity, Paul must create magic. Can he rally the kids, with the help of teaching assistant cum dolt Mr Poppy, and get Jennifer to make the trip from Los Angeles to come to the play? It's not as if they're actually on speaking terms...

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Reading the above, you may think you can fill in the rest of the film yourself. To an extent, you can predict the journey, but what could catch you by surprise are the pleasures en route. This isn't quite the Hugh Grant vehicle it sounds. For one thing, Martin Freeman is such a great actor that no matter how outlandish the film's events, it's grounded.

You can believe that he doesn't have the frankly grotesque Mr Poppy committed because he's too flattened by life to care that much. For another, the kids are so delightfully charming and natural that you're always looking forward to their next appearance. I understand that much of the film is the result of improvisation - a detail that would have put me off had I known in advance, 'devised' being the most evil word in entertainment - but whatever writer/director Debbie Isitt and team did, it worked. And yes, there is a montage of pupils giving amusing auditions, but guess what? They actually are funny. Very.

The movie also has the benefit of a nicely understated performance from Ashley Jensen as Jennifer, the droll Jason Watkins as Gordon, and Pam Ferris as headmistress Mrs Bevan in a turn that's amusing, yet never over the top. Unlike Marc Wootten; most of his scenes are with Freeman and whereas he's acting, Wootten - TV's Shirley Ghostman - is giving us comic acting. Calling his performance broad is like calling a giant redwood a bonsai. It's way over the top, with Mr Poppy seeming not so much a teacher who wants to be friends with the kids as a dolt with a stunted/psychotic personality. You don't believe he'd ever be let anywhere near kids, never mind given a position of responsibility. He spends so much of the time charging around like a bull in a kindergarten that when his Poignant Moment comes, you don't give a toss - let him suffer.

Somehow, Wootten doesn't derail the film, with the other characters and the storyline so engaging that you're carried along to the climax, as the all-singing, all-dancing Nativity is staged in Coventry Cathedral. Unless you're a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to Christmas films, I recommend going along to see this for the sheer joy on display.

Reviewed on: 09 Dec 2009
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Can a school's Christmas play succeed when it's directed by The Grinch?
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Director: Debbie Isitt

Writer: Debbie Isitt

Starring: Martin Freeman, Marc Wootten, Ashley Jensen, Pam Ferris, Jason Watkins

Year: 2009

Runtime: 105 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: UK


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