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Last Updated: Friday, 10 December, 2004, 08:34 GMT
Nativity: the agony and the ecstasy
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News education reporter

A shepherd and Mary
New man: a shepherd helps Mary with the childcare

Whatever you do this week, don't mention the N-word.

Pupils around the UK are a bag of nerves, some of their parents even more so.

Weeks of hard work are coming together in big end-of-term performances.

It makes exams look like light relief.

It is, of course, the Nativity play.

So, how are the kids coping with the weight of parental hopes, the smell of the greasepaint, the expected roar of the crowd?

The pupils of St Mary's Primary School in Chiddingfold, Surrey, have been rehearsing for three weeks for The Gigantic Star, a humorous take on the traditional story of the birth of Jesus.

'Let's go on with the show'

Costumes are ready for an ensemble of 90 shepherds, angels, wise men, Mary, Joseph and the rest.

The five to seven-year-olds are word-perfect and the dress rehearsal has gone well.

Now only an audience of 130 parents awaits.

Being a star is hard work

Six-year-old Owen, playing a shepherd, is treading the boards for the first time and has mixed feelings.

He said: "I've never done anything like this ever, so it's a bit embarrassing.

"It's been quite hard practising. It's difficult to remember when to go on and off the stage. Some people have to go on and off the stage backward.

"I don't get to say anything. Next time I want to. But I've really enjoyed myself and I don't want to be off school for Christmas."


Phoebe, also six, playing the Archangel Gabriel, is more confident, being a comparative gnarled veteran of the Nativity - no stranger to the manger.

"I've been practising for weeks. It should be OK because I like singing and don't mind people watching when I do it."

Vicky Voller
The only problem is that if the script has a joke and people laugh, the children often don't know why
Vicky Voller, teacher

The Gigantic Star, as the name suggests, focuses on the star which leads Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.

It develops a complex because it is bigger than its celestial neighbours.

But as it does its job getting Mary and co to the inn, it realises that its size has a purpose and, like Jesus, it is OK to be different.

Teacher Vicky Voller is confident that the audiences who cram into the school hall for the two performances will go home happy.

She said: "The parents just come to have a good time. I've never met a parent who puts any pressure on their kids over it.

'No pressure, darling, honestly'

"They are satisfied if they see their children confident on the stage.

"They want their kids to get it right. They can be quite nervous on their behalf.

Vicky Voller gives tips on holding the baby

"Often they know the words as well as the kids because they have been practising their lines at home with them."

Debbie Wallbank, who has two sons in the play, said: "They have been practising non-stop. They are a bit nervous. They've become very aware of it over the last week.

"It's quite nerve-racking. You hope they are not going to trip over the long dresses they wear. I'm sure they will be fine.

"I'll be proud of them, however it goes."

Despite the encouragement, it remains tough at the top.

Alice, seven, is literally the star of the show, playing the gigantic character which gives the musical its name.

'Oh, the pain'

She said: "I have to put my arms in the air to be the star. After a while they really ache because I'm not used to it.

"I'm feeling a bit nervous because lots of people will be watching and there's lots to do.

"My mum's nervous as well. She's really excited, as excited as I am."

Patricia, seven, playing Mary, has to sing a solo number about getting baby Jesus to sleep.

Manger scene
All the costumes were made by just two people

"It's OK, because in the play he's a doll, so he behaves himself," she said.

Putting on the half-hour play has been an all-round community effort, repeated in school halls across the UK.

Shirley Jones, a classroom assistant, and Phyllis Spandler, who lives in the village, made all the costumes. Shirley has even washed them all at home.

Tickets are impossible to get, with families rationed to two each.

Vicky, who is leaving the school at Christmas, said: "The parents love it. They are really enthusiastic. The kids get so excited about it.

"The only problem is that if the script has a joke and people laugh, they often don't know why. Sometimes the kids get the wrong idea and think the audience is laughing at them. We have to warn them why the parents are laughing.

"They expect the children to make mistakes and have a laugh about it. They are having great fun. It's the highlight of the school year."

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