It was an unexpected joy to receive a card through the post from Saltmine Theatre Company with a link to their latest production. Hark! A Nativity Story was filmed live at Dormston Mill Theatre under strict Covid-19 guidelines. This one-off livestream provided the perfect tonic to a Christmas darkened by lockdown restrictions and marked by botched family plans. It may not have been quite as affecting as if I’d been in the intimacy of an auditorium. But the production team did a pretty good job in making their virtual audience feel connected to the onstage action.
What surprised me most about Hark was its originality. It is a very loose adaptation of the Nativity. Taking the angelic visitation to the shepherds as its focus, it imagines the heavenly preparations that we’re taking place in the run-up to this well-known event. There are chaotic scenes as trainee angel Angela (Emily Feltham) loses the all-important message that is to be delivered to the shepherds of “good news that will bring joy to all people”. Her quest in trying to recover the lost letter leads to all sorts of encounters which provide plenty of twists and turns in an adventure that is both thrilling and touching.
One of the reasons that Hark makes for exhilarating viewing is the performance of Ben Kessell as King Herod. He steals the show as the ‘Emperor of Sass’, delivering a camp and comedic turn that goes down an absolute storm. His debonair appearance is wonderfully at odds with his hopeless intentions, his shiny silver boots and smartly-fashioned suit reflecting a narcissistic pride that leads to his ultimate failure in trying to conceal the message that Angela has been asked to deliver. Kessell’s improvisation, alongside his interaction with fellow cast members, is so perfectly-timed and razor sharp that his presence on stage is electrifying. He is a tour de force whose energy can be felt palpably through the screen.
Feltham and Freddy Goymer make a great partnership as misfits Angela and Brian. The former’s good-natured and well-intentioned angel along with the latter’s tongue-tied and smitten shepherd offer a beautifully gentle opposite to Kessell’s power-hungry furore. With the rest of the shepherds, Goymer’s Brian brings humour and happiness. This is most readily seen in a glorious folk song that contains some lovely, lyrical wordplay and delightful choreography. Meanwhile, Feltham’s downhearted hero gives us some touching moments, not least with a poignant and thought-provoking song that might not be the strongest vocal performance but certainly makes you feel every bit of Angela’s hopelessness and low self-esteem. Her bleak assessment, both of herself and her situation, is then turned around by the ‘Three Wise People’ in a song whose positive message fizzes out to create a moment of pure joy. These moments ensure that the relationship between Angela and Brian never turns into the schmaltzy romance so beloved of Christmas pantos. The spark between them is there but the focus remains on their transformation as individuals, loved by God, from whom they get their true value and worth. It is this message that Saltmine wish to convey, and it is delivered in Hark so implicitly well that the overt ending is not necessarily needed. Instead, the words of Angela’s message, which appear onscreen at the end, are enough to underline and instigate reflection on the story’s central premise.
Hark! A Nativity Story is a wonderfully accessible piece of theatre which will bring joy and hope to homes in the midst of another national lockdown. Young and old can gather around a screen and enjoy a funny and fast-paced romp through a very different take on the classic Christmas story. It blends some of the well-loved elements of the traditional pantomime with some of the well-known characters of the Nativity to create a well-written adventure story that thoroughly entertains. Prepare for a show of topsy-turvy madness delivered with plenty of heart.
Find out more about Hark! A Nativity Story by Saltmine Theatre Company here.
Featured Image (C) Saltmine Theatre Company