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Aldermaston - The York Nativity Play (2005 onwards)

You can see reviews of previous years' productions here: 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004. Reviews on this page are for 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2022, 2023.

8th to 11th December 2005. For the 49th year, the York Nativity Play was performed in the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Nativity story is beautifully reborn

York Nativity Play, at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston, on Thursday, December 8, Friday, December 9 and Saturday, December 10

'Fresh' might seem a strange description of a play dating from 600 or 700 years ago, and performed for 49 consecutive years at Aldermaston church, with the same inspired director and largely the same cast, in the same costumes, accompanied by the same music. Yet the impact is still one of directness and immediacy.

The story could not be more familiar, yet one waits eagerly for the next moment, so vividly do the actors - and the text itself - draw the audience into a shared experience. It is also a visual experience of great beauty, irresistibly suggesting medieval illuminated manuscripts in glowing red and gold, with the principal figures attracting veneration, while the more earthy shepherds bring daily life into the margins. The audience are time travellers, living on three levels at once. We are drawn back to what happened in Nazareth, in Bethlehem, in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago; but we also experience these events as they were seen by a medieval audience of labourers and craftsmen, hearing saints and angels speaking in their own dialect, not in the Latin of the Church. Medieval theology is woven into the dialogue, and both the shepherds on the hillside and the high priest in the temple deliver an uncompromisingly Christian message.

We are in our own time too, in the context of our own lives, hearing a version that is clear and comprehensible, but keeps the structure and some of the vocabulary of medieval thought.

The York Nativity is not presented as a theatrical performance, with star ratings and applause. It is offered as a devotional preparation for Christmas, an audible and visible prayer. Succeeding generations of Aldermaston families, and singers drawn from all around, give us clarity of diction - dignified or robustly cheerful as required - great visual beauty and music worthy of the angelic choir.

Next year will see the 50th birthday of this offering. Try not to miss it.


4th and 7th to 9th December 2006.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Story of simple faith

Fiftieth Aldermaston nativity play is the true heart of Christmas

The York Nativity Play, at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston, on Monday, December 4, Thursday, December 7, Friday, December 8 and Saturday, December 9

It was with 'joyful steps' that audiences sped to Aldermaston's Church of St Mary the Virgin for last week's performances of this play from the 15th-century York Mystery Cycle. Now in its 50th year of production, the play retains its ability to evoke an awestruck wonder.

Music played by members of The Wessex Society of Recorder Players started the process of taking those present back to medieval times and single notes of The Noble Son of Jesse, quietly played on a psaltery, heralded the arrival of Mary, the embodiment of motherhood, to hear from a gloriously robed and glittering Gabriel (Chris Newman) that she was chosen by God to bear his son.

Catherine Ramsell made a most joyous and serene Mary, face alight throughout, while Nick Caiger-Smith was exceptional as Joseph, making it clear how difficult it was to accept his young wife's pregnancy, until a second visit from Gabriel brought enlightenment.

They headed a team of extraordinarily talented local people, many of whom have been appearing in the play for years. For them it must be not only demanding work, but a very special part of their lives.

There could surely be no better place to tell the familiar story than this beautiful 12th-century church and as the lighting rose, and diminished, extinguishing altogether for the birth, it seemed as though we had all strayed into a medieval painting in which principal characters were brought to life.

Adding to this effect were the splendid costumes, many preserved from the earliest performances with loving care, along with several of the props, including two doves presented at the Temple by Joseph.

And behind it all came magnificent 15th and 16th-century music as the choir, under the direction of Peter Denny, sang tenderly and clearly from the cramped, chilly ringing chamber, the tunes chosen 50 years before.

It was encouraging to see young lads taking part, for this is a tradition which must continue as a unique reminder in our materialistic world that it is not overflowing shopping trolleys and expensive presents which are at the heart of Christmas, but this story of simple faith.


4th to 9th December 2007.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

A message for all

Fifty-first Aldermaston nativity play still has something fresh to give

The York Nativity Play, at St Mary the Virgin Church, Aldermaston, from Tuesday, December 4 to Sunday, December 9

The best antidote I have found to battling Christmas shopping crowds, carpark queues and internet checkouts was stepping back to the culture and costume of the 1400s and a dialogue of pre-Shakespearean rhyming couplets in the York Mystery Play. It was performed for the 51st time this week in the beautiful, unrestored church of St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston, which is also of that period.

So, as someone who has had opportunity over the years to explain the nativity story to others, I was both surprised and gratified to find new depth of meaning in Joseph's plodding confusion, the aged, shuffling Simeon's astonishment and joy at being able to see the prediction of the Scriptures fulfilled, and the growing sense of destiny for Mary, changed by her encounter with a majestic angel Gabriel.

The York Mystery Plays are some of the oldest surviving mystery plays, the cycle of which covered the whole of the salvation landscape from beginnings to final fulfilment, with each story or tableau acted out on a cart by a particular trademan's guild. Originally, the procession moved slowly through the city for the midsummer festival, stopping at various performance stations, a devotional form of the modern carnival procession on its lorry trailer and without the award rosettes.

Using a 20th-century adaptation by playwright E. Martin-Browne, director Pat Eastop has taken the six tableaux which cover the announcement to Mary, the visit to Bethlehem and the birth, Herod's suspicions and the visit of the Magi, and set them all around the audience in chancel, side chapel and bell-tower of the church, to present one moving episode which, however, requires one to settle down to medieval pace and language.

But far from sounding banal, the result has great impact and is humorous at times, without losing any of its message. The metre of the verses, originally written by the York clergy, varies according to the urgency and mood and communicates in a way that modern language cannot approach -perhaps because it makes one think about the words.

Interwoven, we recognise a version of Mary's Magnificat and Simeon's Nunc Dimittis, and the acting is strongly reinforced by early carols, in Latin and vernacular which, if not exactly of the period (four-part harmony, first devised at Reading Abbey, became popular a little later) fitted like a glove.

Although presented as a drama in its own right, welcoming anyone of any faith or belief, there was a powerful underlying message. Indeed one role was that of the vicar, the Rev Pete Steele, who appeared near the beginning, like any other actor, to set the scene in a very approachable way and explain the meaning of Jesus' birth. His voice was heard again in words of blessing at the end, all seamlessly part of the presentation.


8th to 14th December 2008.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Tribute to optimism

Testament to the enduring power of the York Nativity play

The York Mystery Play, at the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston, from Monday, December 8 to Sunday, December 14

Pat Eastop's direction of the Aldermaston Mystery Plays embraces the very soul of English culture and language. The plays mirror the rhythm and phraseology of their 14th-century originals, being a composite of six such tableaux that were played from wagons hauled around York in a sort of mobile stained-glass window. The costumes are well-researched versions of medieval dress and Peter Denny leads the musicians playing and singing in a goodly mix of Latin and Middle English adapted for the modern era.

It feels like a good medieval idea to have them up in the ringing chamber, but the cramped space has to be shared with Archangel Gabriel, played with all the imposing sense of sacredness by Chris Newman.

Mary is Catherine Ramsell playing opposite Nick Caiger-Smith as Joseph. She copes with everything with total serenity; first there's the annunciation, then they journey to Bethlehem, then Joseph's anguished doubts, the small matter of the birth of our saviour, and finally off on a donkey to Egypt. Never mind, says she, "It is the will of God", adding meekly: "Where is Egypt?" "I dunno" replies husband. Typical.

The speech and the physical movements are so reverential that it is refreshing to welcome the three shepherds, played by Adrian Thomas, and Barry and Leslie Woodley. Caught napping on the little stage by Gabriel, they leap up to dance around like red-hooded tag wrestlers.

This could have put the three kings in the shade, were it not for the wonderful voices of all three (Peter Faulkner, Chris Newman and Steve Wallis), pondering as they journeyed upon the wisdom of obeying Herod's laws. Just as well, for they are espied by Jack Arlott's Gollum-like portrayal of one of Herod's Men of Might. He, of course, spills the beans to the bad guy (Peter Oldridge), who gnashes his teeth and fumes in a masterly mix of menace and urbanity, reminding the Magi to be back in court before closing time "on pain of life and limb."

The Temple Priest (Tim Clarke) treated us to another lovely speaking voice with the hard job of keeping control of one or two of his acolytes. He really will have to tell them off about concentrating on their candle-handles. Youth of the Middle Ages, eh?

Never mind all that, the audience were absolutely delighted, body and soul. It's a tribute to optimism, for come what may, this dramatic entertainment has endured for 700 turbulent years. Let's look forward to the next 700. Pete Steele may not still be the parish vicar, but we can be sure that they will still be playing the Mysteries at St Mary's.


10th to 13th December 2009.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Aldermaston's miracle

Bethlehem revisited in 53rd York mystery production

York Nativity Play, at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston from Tuesday, December 10 to Saturday, December 13

This was the 53rd production of the York Nativity Play at Aldermaston with the very first, way back in 1957, using many of the same costumes, the same music and almost another miracle, the same director, Pat Eastop. With a continuous run like that only The Mousetrap in London has been going longer.

This, though, is no lightweight engaging thriller; this is a text written by E. Martin Browne based on six individual plays from the renowned York Mystery Cycle from medieval times. Pat Eastop's production is visually impressive and the actors function with smooth harmony within the story and the tableau they create together.

The splendid 12th-century church provides an ideal location, allowing the audience to be transported back into the past and creating an atmosphere where the visual groupings take on the look of rich oil paintings brought to vibrant life.

Essentially, we are presented with one set piece after another, representing the events of the Bible story in sequence and acted out naturally in the language of the times. From the chime-like notes of the psaltery, played by Heather Davies, and followed by Catherine Ramsell as Mary, the cast moved through their various roles with clear, crisp diction and a sense of reality about everything they said and did.

Catherine Ramsell had little to do except look serene and contented after the initial shock of being told of her destiny, although she did it very well, delivering her lines with conviction. Nick Caiger-Smith was suitably old, bent and confused as Joseph, changing as the action proceeded to acceptance and joy. There were good performances from the actors playing the three kings, the shepherds and, indeed, everybody in the cast, for this was an ensemble performance, carefully and reverently choreographed by the director.

The action took place all around the church, with music from the choir conducted by Peter Denny coming from the tower. This was the music chosen in 1957 and used at every production since. Pat Eastop told me that it is quite a sight to see the actors in medieval costumes, emerging from the village hall and getting into their 21st century cars to drive up to the church. I didn't see that, but I was transported back to Bethlehem for an hour-and-a-half of theatrical magic with words edited in 1932 by Martin Browne that resembled those heard 500 years ago in York.


6th to 12th December 2010.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Message speaks across generations

Aldermaston's mystery a simply-told reminder of the Christmas story

The 54th Aldermaston York Nativity Play, at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston, on December 6, 9, 10, 11 and 12

The festive season conjures up images of snow, particularly this year. Fir trees, frenetic shopping, presents, glorious food, over-indulgence and commercialisation.

So it was surprisingly refreshing to be reminded of the origin of the Christmas story told simply and with total sincerity by the community of Aldermaston in the delightful 11th-century church of St Mary the Virgin, with its beautiful frescos.

For the past 54 years, The York Nativity Play, known locally as the Aldermaston Play, has been performed directed by Pat Eastop, based on the York Cycle that was originally staged on pageant wagons, pulled through the streets of York.

There was a wonderful atmosphere in the church as the story of the Nativity unfolded. Many of the cast have been playing the characters for years and families have passed on the roles from generation to generation.

The action took place throughout the church as Mary (Catherine Ramsell) revealed to Joseph, convincingly played by Nick Caiger-Smith that she was going to have a baby. Angel Gabriel (Chris Newman) was splendid as he delivered the news, quite literally, from on high.

The three shepherds, Adrian Thomas, Barry Woodley and Leslie Woodley followed the star to the stable to pay their respects to the baby Jesus. However, King Herod (Peter Oldridge) was determined to find the baby and kill him.

Also following the bright star were the three Kings, strongly played by Chris Goodchild, Steve Wallis and Peter Faulkner, who wished to bestow the traditional gifts on baby Jesus.

The entire cast embraced the medieval rhyming language with confidence and performed some lovely singing as they related the story with passion and commitment. It was good to see the youngsters playing the parts of messengers and acolytes. Their futures as main characters are undoubtedly ensured.

Dramatically lit and beautifully costumed in medieval dress and with the most exquisite harmonies from the choir this was the perfect and most moving start to Christmas celebrations. Bravo.


8th to 11th December 2011.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Not so much a play, more an institution

Landmark 55th year under the same director for Aldermaston's York Nativity

The York Nativity Play, at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston, from December 8 to 11

Although the original plan was for no more than three performances, the York Nativity Play has been been presented at this church every year since 1957. For this landmark 55th presentation by the same director, Pat Eastop, who put on the very first performance, I made my way to the 12th-century church an hour before what she had told me was a dress rehearsal/performance.

The charming, Grade 1 listed building was already buzzing with activity as King Herod stood by a pillar and the three Shepherds in full costume chatted together. Sundry visitors and invited guests looked on. Mary was being followed by a cameraman from Meridian television and Joseph looked on with a bemused expression. Over the years, Pat told me, the play has become almost a family affair with sons and daughters of cast members taking part and some actors playing their roles almost as long as she has been directing.

Leslie Woodley, with 48 years' service the longest serving actor, is still playing a Shepherd today and still loving it. Rivalling William Roach of Corrie for longevity in one role, he does not plan to retire. His brother, Barry, has a long way to catch up with a mere 10 years in the part of Second Shepherd. The brothers work as a groundsman and an estate worker respectively when not treading the boards. As for Mary, played by assistant headteacher Catherine Ramsell, she has been in the part for 18 years and has decided to retire after this year's performances to make way for Zoe Wilgar, a teaching assistant eased into the part by playing it on two nights. Nick Caiger Smith, a director of a charity for the disabled, will end a 13-year run and five years before that as a boy, playing Joseph.

In spite of swift interviews going on by the Meridian presenter and myself and the intrusive, roving camera, pointing at all the characters in turn, Pat Eastop makes it clear that everything must stop at eight for the performance.

And so it begins. I've reviewed twice before over the years but somehow it seems to have extra zing and bite on this evening; Mary appears more serene than ever, Joseph is exceptionally emotive and powerful in his opening scenes. Even the glorious colours of the costumes, blending into the lighting and the wall shadows have an extra depth and dimension.

The staging is first-class, utilising the entire church, including the gallery with a tableau effect to many of the set pieces and when you add in the music from oboe player Emma Tyson and the choir directed by Peter Denny, the illusion is complete.

The words, adapted by E. Martin-Browne and edited from original texts of the six, individual York Nativity Plays, resemble those heard more than 500 years ago and they have resounded round the walls of this lovely old church for 55 years and still counting. Long may they continue to do so.


6th to 9th December 2012.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Jewel in the Christmas crown

The 56th Aldermaston nativity play is a time to reflect

The York Nativity Play, at St Mary the Virgin Church, Aldermaston, from Thursday, December 6 to Sunday, December 9

Christmas has officially begun. The York Nativity Play has completed its 2012 run in the beautiful church of St Mary the Virgin in Aldermaston.

This community production has, for the last 56 years, been creating an oasis of calm at the start of the busy-ness that is Christmas for most of us. It is a feast for the senses, an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of Christmas or perhaps just to marvel at the dedication of the people who make this gift to us year after year.

Nobody is more dedicated than Pat Eastop, whose vision takes an extract from the cycle of mystery plays performed on wagons in 14th century York and makes it meaningful to a modern audience in a medieval church in Aldermaston. Over nearly six decades, she has cajoled, charmed and chivvied her performers, musicians and backstage workers to ensure that every year the production is as close to artistic perfection as possible.

Part of the magic is the sense of continuity, not only of the story but also of the players; it is not altogether a joke that when a new actor joins the cast he or she is told it is a 30-year contract.

Inevitably, there are cast changes from time to time, but somehow they reinvigorate rather than disrupt. This was Zoe Wilgar's second year as Mary and she has already established a presence with her entirely convincing portrayal of a trusting and devout young woman.

I am sure I was not the only regular attender to worry about how anybody could possibly replace Christopher Newman as Gabriel but Nigel Antell is a worthy successor, remarkable for his dignity and clarity of delivery.

Warwick Brown made a welcome debut as second king, Kerry Woodley played Anna for the first time and Kyle Brown and Benjamin Givan began what we hope will be long associations with the play.

The role of second maid was taken on at short notice by the play's secretary, Alison Faulkner, following the death of Jenny Franklin and the production was dedicated to Jenny's memory as well as to the Queen's jubilee.

I must make special mention of the choir, under the expert direction of Peter Denny. Perhaps because I was sitting closer to the gallery from where their unaccompanied voices float over the production and audience below, this year they sounded better than ever. They create a truly beautiful sound which weaves through the drama unfolding below them.

If experiencing Aldermaston's nativity play is not yet part of your Christmas tradition, do go next year. But you will have to move quickly to get a (free) ticket - hundreds of people already know about this glowing jewel and the church is always packed.


6th to 8th December 2013.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Meditation on Christmas

Fifty-seventh Aldermaston nativity passes through the generations

Every year since 1957, the York Nativity Play has been performed in the beautiful 12th-century church of St Mary the Virgin at Aldermaston, with each production directed by Pat Eastop.

The church, with its glorious 15th-century triptych above the altar, stained glass and frescoes, was the original and continuing inspiration for the production. In the quiet and stillness of this ancient church, one feels part of the human continuum. The play is a perfect preparation for Christmas.

Taken from the 14th century York Mystery cycle, the play is cast within the village. Generations of local people have taken part, with individual roles sometimes passed from fathers to sons, from mothers to daughters, adding to the play's sense of intimacy and community. For Third Shepherd Leslie Woodley this is his 50th production; his brother Barry is also in the play, and their father before them. For the last 12 years Joseph has been played by Nick Caiger-Smith; the part was played by his father Alan for many years.

The production, evocatively and sensitively lit by Chris Chapman and Clive Vare, used the whole of the church space. The spare text, the strong, simple colours of the costumes, the minimal movement and props, concentrate the mind on the meaning of the poetry. Every word counts.

Slow-paced and formal, the production is as much meditation as performance, suffused with the director's painterly eye and creative sensibility. Tableaux have their provenance in 15th-century European religious art, in the colours and design of the costumes, and in the arrangement of figures. Catherine Ramsell, a radiant, calm Mary the Queen of Heaven, dressed in red and wearing a crown, sat, partly turned, on a red Eastern carpet, an image from a late medieval painting.

The original costumes were designed by artist Isabel Hall, mother of Newbury painter Christopher Hall. When they need replacing, new costumes are made to her original designs. Ecchinswell potter Geoff Eastop made and fired the ceramic baby Jesus.

The text is deliberately, and meaningfully, spare, and all the cast brought a clear understanding of the text to their parts. Bent-backed Joseph was at first bemused, then accepting of his wife's pregnancy. Chris Newman as Gabriel was an otherworldly figure. The three shepherds with their fine strong voices brought down-to-earth attitudes and simple presents to the baby, one a gift of a spoon which could hold 40 peas; the Three Kings, identically dressed, came to believe in the miracle. Peter Oldridge's performance as Herod suggested a simmering violence; black-robed acolytes bearing candles and incense brought the ritual of the temple to the presentation of the baby to God. Music, drawn from the 12th to the early-17th centuries and originally chosen by the rector, the Rev Stanley Young, for the first performance in 1957, was an equal partner with the drama. The audience assembled to music played by five recorders from the Galliard Band and the Camberley Recorder Ensemble: a simple, timeless sound. The thin plucked notes of a carol played on a psaltery, followed by a solo voice, heralded the performance itself. The unaccompanied choir, singing from the tower, were conducted by the director of music, John Mountford.

The production is a real team effort, dovetailing the talents not only of actors, singers and musicians, but all the backstage contributors so essential to its success, from stage management, wardrobe and make-up, to publicity graphic design and administration.

The ending was inspired. In the softest of light, Mary sat cradling her baby, Joseph beside her, his hand held above her head like a halo. Gradually into a deep silence, all light was extinguished. As a faint light grew, the figures had gone. All that was left on the dais were the Three Kings' gifts, the only tangible evidence of the holy birth: physical symbols of faith itself.


4th to 7th December 2014.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Tribute to the past and promise for the future

The 58th Aldermaston York Nativity play

York Mystery Play, at St Mary the Virgin Church, Aldermaston, from Thursday, December 4 to Sunday, December 7

The performances last week of the York Nativity Play at St Mary's Church, Aldermaston, were the first since the recent death of Pat Eastop, who founded the event in 1957, and produced and directed it every year since. Chris Boott had quite a task to take over direction, but he had been invited to take over by Pat herself. The fine quality of the production was a tribute to the past and a promise for the future. Based on a 14th-century original, the play weaves the story of the nativity as told in scripture with music, mainly from around 1600, into a credible dramatic sequence. Those taking part are villagers, spanning several generations of at least the Woodley family, one of whom, Leslie, has played for 50 years, having taken over from his father. This invites parallels with those drawn into the original story which unfolds in traditional style with traditional language. This must add to its great appeal.

Philip Hull, only the fifth Joseph in the production's history, is concerned that Mary (Catherine Ramsell) is with child, until the angel Gabriel (Nigel Antell) reassures him of God's will for the coming of the Saviour. The elements of the Gospel story of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem then follow in sequence. The shepherds (Adrian Thomas, Barry and Leslie Woodley) were robustly down-to-earth, and the Three Kings (Chris Goodchild, Warwick Brown and Peter Faulkner) brought regal dignity to their parts. Herod (Peter Oldridge) made his fawning nastiness very real - the original medieval dramas sought to reinforce the Gospel message of salvation without attempting to add interpretative value; the story had to speak for itself.

It was reassuring to see so many young people engaged with the play, which augurs well for its future. The small choir was under the direction of John Mountford, quietly and sensitively adding to the meaning of the various scenes. Before the play started, recorder music was played by the Galliard Band and the Camberley Ensemble.

The production was coherent and flowed fluently throughout. The fine costumes and sensitive lighting played their part. It was a tribute to its past and a strong advocate for its continuation.


3rd to 6th December 2015.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

The true meaning of Christmas

Imaginative staging of the nativity in Aldermaston's historic church

The York Mystery Play, arranged by E Martin Browne, at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston, from Thursday, December 3 to Saturday, December 6

So this is Christmas - and what have you done? Hung up some decorations, done a bit of shopping, ordered the turkey...?

This traditional play is a refreshing and timely reminder of what Christmas is meant to be about, away from all that conspicuous consumerism, tinsel and glitter. Adapted from the mystery cycle, passed down over hundreds of years, its modern form dates from 1932 and it has been performed, remarkably, every year in Aldermaston for almost 60.

Of course, the only riddle here is that of the immaculate conception, the word 'mystery' deriving from the trades of men who would act out the story in olden days.

At the fittingly historic church of St Mary the Virgin, the local cast ambitiously perform in the round, taking full advantage of the whole space, including the gallery and nave. The actors must be careful their words are not lost when they turn their back on the audience. Lighting the interior of a medieval church is not easy; there are some stunning effects and a lot of long shadows too.

For me, the outstanding highlight of the imaginative staging consists of the magnificent a cappella singing of the ethereal choir. In a way it's a pity we only hear these uncredited singers, without seeing them – but musical director John Mountford has created an overall effect that is truly heavenly to listen to. Peter Oldridge also makes a suitably slimy Herod, Catherine Ramsell a perfectly beatific Mary and Philip Hull a decidedly confused Joseph; Barry and Leslie Woodley and Adrian Thomas come over well as singing shepherds who just need to rein in their volume a touch, or it gets too shouty.

The stately progress of the piece and the slightly archaic language mean sadly that this production isn't very suitable for young kids. But for anyone over the age of eight, even a miserable sinner like me, the play is an uplifting experience. The 'greatest story ever told' is, after all, the fount of our shared Christian heritage, half-buried though it may be today under layers of modern scepticism, even cynicism.

You'll find the true meaning of Christmas here; and it nourishes the spirit, while warming the soul.


5th to 11th December 2016.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Play with enduring power

Aldermaston's 60th community production of the York Mystery

York Mystery Play, at the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston, from Thursday, December 8, to Sunday, December 11

This was the 60th year the York Mystery Cycle of plays arranged by E Martin Browne were performed in the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, which dates back to 1150.

The 14th-century mysteries were still being performed towards the end of the 16th, so Aldermaston still has some way to go to catch up but, with 60 years of continuous performances, they are certainly working at it. The originator and inspiration for all these years of presentation was the late Pat Eastop, who directed each year from 1957 until her death in 2014.

She had planned to direct the 59th and 60th productions and alerted her assistant Chris Boot that after the 60th she would like to step down and have him take over. Sadly, it was not to be, and Chris took oyer earlier than he expected and, as he says, regretted that he had so little time to discuss the play with Pat and get to know why she designed it the way she did. I don't think .he needed to worry too much. This latest production was very much in her tradition as I remember it; colourful, wonderfully-acted and lit, with glorious costumes that made it look as though the people in them were stepping straight out of Biblical times. The tableaux, too, were very much in the Pat Eastop tradition; carefully and accurately staged to look like colourful painted masterpieces in a gallery.

Beginning with some lovely ancient music, played by a quartet on strange shaped recorders, this set the mood for the play to begin. Holly Lucas looked just right as Mary calm and serene throughout, and she conveyed the quiet surprise and acceptance of her fate.

Philip Hull as Joseph was convincing as the older man, fearful that his young wife had gone astray and was bearing a child that was not his, but soon coming to accept what was happening to both of them as the Angel Gabriel, played strongly by Chris Faulkner, explained it to him.

The tableaux were all impressive, colourful, well-lit and with Mary looking calmly radiant and Joseph strong and protective with arm around her shoulder. Costumes too were bright and boldly-coloured and movement across and down the church walkways carefully choreographed.

All the actors gave fine performances but this play is first and foremost a community effort; there are no stars, everyone from ticket-sellers to major characters are equally important in lids powerful group performance.

Pat Eastop will long be remembered as the primary inspiration and she was a modest, generous person. I still treasure the letter she wrote thanking me for my 2013 revue of the play. Her last act in 2014 was to appoint a new Joseph and she chose well.

Throughout this year's performances a lantern glowed with warm light in the churchyard, over the grave where Pat and her husband Geoffrey rest in peace.


4th to 10th December 2017.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Tradition evolves with time

Director introduces new music and effects to 61st Aldermaston nativity

Aldermaston Nativity Play, at St Mary the Virgin Church, Aldermaston, from Monday, December 4, to Sunday, December 10

Watching the York Nativity play from the York Mystery Cycle designed by E Martin-Browne in the dark, atmospheric antiquity of St Mary's Church, it is sometimes possible to be transported back in time, so real are the costumes, the words and the lighting.

The late Pat Eastop (who was appointed the MBE for services to the Aldermaston Nativity Play) designed and directed these annual performances from 1957 until 2013, shortly before her death and her influence is still evident in the staging, presentation and lighting, in fact everything about the play as it is seen today.

And that is to take nothing away from the present director, Chris Boott, who has continued in the tradition, keeping the essential movement and tableau and adding his own stage effects and offering new music, with a choir directed by Tiffany Ebrey. All this means that the annual event has continued and grown, changing in small, subtle, significant ways that can only enhance and ensure the continuation of these plays in future. It is, surely, exactly what Pat Eastop would have wanted. In the tradition, at the start of the seventh decade of performances, the Rev Janice Macdonald introduced the play with a few well-chosen words, following a recorder solo from a member of the Galliard band. Then the lights dimmed to darkness and faded up very slowly to reveal the figure of Mary, played by Holly Lucas in a red silk gown. She played her part skilfully, showing at first surprise and then acceptance and serenity.

Phillip Hull, as Joseph, indicated pain and confusion at first, but later played the part indicating his new understanding. The shepherds – Adrian Thomas, Keith Graham and Leslie Woodley – were effective in their homage, as were the three kings – Chris Goodchild, Warwick Brown and Peter Faulkner.

Peter Oldridge was a suitably loud and evil Herod and all the supporting parts were played with care and dedication. The colourful spectacle that this production offered was enhanced by the sacred music, played by the choir from their lofty position in the tower, a location shared occasionally by Chris Faulkner in his now-and-again appearances as the Angel Gabriel.

The production ended, as always, with the lights fading down slowly to blackout on Mary and Joseph. As we left the church, a glance to the right just outside the door showed a light burning above the place where Pat and her husband Geoffrey are laid to rest. Many inhabitants of Aldermaston village take part in one way or another to bring these annual performances to fruition and once again – for the 61st time – they can be proud of their achievement.


6th to 9th December 2018.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

The magical Mystery

Aldermaston community tells the story of the first Christmas

Aldermaston Nativity Play, at St Mary the Virgin Church from December 6 to 9

It must be fairly common knowledge by now that the York Nativity Play has been performed in St Mary's Church Aldermaston continuously since 1957, directed every year by Pat Eastop until her death in 2014 and continued since then, in a style set up and initiated by her, by the present director Chris Boott.

It is said that over the years almost every inhabitant of Aldermaston has been involved in one way or another. Some more than others. Pat Eastop's twin sons, for example, who famously both fainted on stage mid-performance. Then there is the actor who, it is alleged, spoke his lines out loud every day, all year round until the next performance. And the actors, in shepherds' costumes, who slipped into a pub for a pint while they were offstage.

There have also been incidents with candles lit too early or causing burning problems, but I name no names here. No problems of any kind were encountered during Thursday's performance of the play, adapted by E Martin-Browne in 1932.

Early music was played on recorders by the Galliard Band to set the mood before the start. At the beginning we saw Mary, played by Holly Lucas, looking calm and serene as the Angel Gabriel, Chris Faulkner, informed her of her destiny. Philip Hull as Joseph gave a well-studied performance, at first frustrated and angry at what he thought was his wife's infidelity until the angel appeared before him and put his mind at rest.

The three shepherds were seen next and later the three kings, resplendent in red and gold. Gabriel looked impressive on the balcony, in bright white robes, framed by dark blue curtains on either side.

The choir in the tower, directed by Tiffany Ebrey, sang unaccompanied and set the atmosphere for the performers.

Much of the success of these annual productions depends on the faithfully reproduced and colourful costumes, and the atmospheric lighting and staging in the wonderful 12th-century church. Add to that the dedication of all the actors and the impressive tableaux, carefully posed and still. Best of these is the final one of Mary and baby sitting as Joseph holds up one hand in symbolic protection as the light fades slowly to darkness.

Once again Chris Boott has presented the play in a manner that Pat Eastop would, I believe, have approved, and with subtle changes the performances continue.

We were reminded before leaving that the light over the graves of Pat and Geoffrey Eastop, in the churchyard, glows during performance evenings every year now.


2nd to 8th December 2019.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

And so this is Christmas

Aldermaston's 63-year-old community tradition reminds us of the true meaning of the festive season

The 63rd Aldermaston York Nativity Play, at St Mary the Virgin Church, from Monday, December 2, to Sunday, December 8

The York Nativity Play is a highlight of Aldermaston's festive calendar. First performed in 1957 – and staged every year since – the piece makes for a unique Christmas spectacle, being an abridged and modernised rendition of the mystery plays of late-medieval York. It has always been staged in the Church of St Mary the Virgin which, with its 12th-century decor and biblical imagery, proves a most fitting backdrop. It is a genuine community effort, with a cast and crew comprised entirely of locals.

The play was written by E Martin Browne; while the original York cycle was a re-enactment of the entire Bible story (from Genesis to Revelation), the version staged in Aldermaston centres specifically upon the first Christmas. It also disposes of some of the more archaic language, although it otherwise remains a relatively authentic adaptation, with an oral emphasis and traditional costumes.

While modern audiences will be accustomed to the sanitised nativity narrative popular with school and church groups, the version presented in the York Nativity Play is decidedly more sober, replete with moments of angst and doubt. Joseph (played with unsentimental passion and dramatic vigour by Philip Hull) laments the miraculous pregnancy of Mary (Holly Lucas, in a delightfully sharp performance); the play's overriding tone is one of quiet devotion, rather than of Yuletide jollity. There are no donkeys, inns or irritable innkeepers. It is perhaps closest to the populist nativities in its depiction of Herod (Peter Oldridge) as a brash and decadent tyrant, but Oldridge's king is no swashbuckling pantomime villain – the threat of arbitrary violence is ever-present.

All this is not to say that the play is without warmth – there is plenty to be found here.

Staging arrangements transform the church into a most intimate theatre, with actors emerging from all directions to parade past the audience in their pews. Carols delivered heartily by a choir from the gallery imbue the performance with an angelic soundtrack.

A sensory festive treat.


1st to 4th December 2022.

Review from Newbury Theatre.

Since 1957 Aldermaston Village have presented their version of the 14th century York Mystery Cycle plays as the Nativity play in the lovely parish church before Christmas each year. Pat Eastop was the instigator, guiding light and director from 1957 until her death in 2014, when the director’s baton was passed to Chris Boott.

With a cast of 26, ranging from very young to very old (Leslie Woodley as 3rd Shepherd has been in the play for 59 years!) it’s a huge task and Chris Boott has maintained the format established by Pat Eastop with a few added enhancements.

I went to the dress rehearsal, which had a few glitches, hopefully resolved by the opening night.

New to the cast as Mary was Charley Henkey with a clear, expressive voice. She was ably accompanied by Philip Hull who has played Joseph since 2014. This was a strong performance, expressing his shock and anger when Mary tells him she’s pregnant. Tricia Goodchild was impressive as Elizabeth and Peter Oldridge relished his part as the baddie Herod although his diction was difficult to understand at times. Chris Faulkner was confident and authoritative as Gabriel.

Add to that the Kings, the Shepherds and of course the Choir singing unaccompanied from the tower and directed by Tiffany Ebrey.

This is a very complex production and it’s a tribute to the cast and crew that it is able to appear again after the lockdown.


Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Aldermaston community observes 66-year York mystery tradition

In Aldermaston, they have been performing the York Nativity play for 66 years, missing only 2020 due to Covid. This year was no exception as the actors prepared for the production on the Thursday evening as the Galliard Band played sonorous early music on recorders.

Many of the actors have been playing their roles for several years, a few for as long as 20 – Simeon, played by Dave Shirt.

This year saw just one raw newcomer, Charley Henkey in the key part of Mary. Not that Charley was that raw, as she performs regularly with the Silchester Players. She fitted in seamlessly, serene and assured in a well-made costume as she moved down the aisle to the front of the church. Together with her maids, they made a fine opening tableau at the beginning.

Much of the visual aspect of the play depends on tableau. And good lighting.

There are three main areas – to the right of the aisle, halfway down at the front of the church by the pulpit and from high in the bell ringing chamber.

It is from the chamber that we see the all white, brightly-lit Angel Gabriel (Chris Faulkner), assuring Joseph (Phil Hull), that his wife has not sinned but has been divinely blessed. Phil, crouching on a dimly-lit platform, is relieved and happy. Hull managed well in his transition from deceived husband, as he supposed, to blessed husband.

Charley Henkey had many scenes with just herself and baby, with her husband or receiving visits from shepherds and kings. She looked calm and composed in each.

Directed for the first time in 1957 by the late Pat Eastop, the tradition continues to present the play in accurate, colourful and entertaining style.

The plays are from the earliest transcribed in the English language, edited by E Martin Browne to fit in with the quiet, reflective, meditative space of a church.

With carefully staged tableau, good acting by all participants, colourful costumes and well-designed lighting, the aptly named 12th-century Church of Mary The Virgin in Aldermaston, with its rich acoustic, proves to be the ideal location for the Nativity play. Year after year after year. And counting...


7th to 10th December 2023.

Article from the Newbury Weekly News.

The play is done so Christmas has now begun

Eighty-two-year-old Les Woodley certainly knows the words to Aldermaston’s York Nativity – he has just played Third Shepherd for the 60th year. The mystery play has been performed in the parish church of St Mary the Virgin since 1957. He joined his father Charlie as a shepherd in 1963 and played alongside him until 1986. His brother Barry joined him as a shepherd in 2005 and they have played together ever since. His sister Jenny played the 2nd maid for many years, the part which Jenny’s daughter, Les’s niece Melony plays to this day. Another niece, Kerry, plays the part of Anna. And several of the Woodley family have played acolytes when boys. Les says: “Christmas hasn’t begun in Aldermaston till we have performed the Play!”

This was the 67th year of Aldermaston’s York Nativity Play by E Martin-Browne, from the XIV Century York Mystery Cycle at the 12th-century parish church of St Mary the Virgin – designated one of the Church of England’s 100 National Treasures.

The ancient Grade I-listed church, with its warm acoustic and medieval origins, embraces the costumes, music and spoken word to make the play a very special event and a moving preparation for Christmas.

More than 300 people have been involved over the years as cast, choir, crew and other roles. It has become a family tradition for some, like the Woodleys, who have had three generations in the play and several other families have had two generations. But there are the newcomers too – this year saw Gariella Dance take on the role of Mary and Jim Morrin.

Even after being performed for 67 years, this classic story of the first Christmas as told in medieval times is kept fresh through the introduction of new people taking part and contributing their individual talents and insights to the production.

This year audiences of around 80 to 150 have filled the pews each night over four performances.

The church plays its part in the success of the play too with its single hall with a high wooden barrel ceiling and a beautiful acoustic. It was started in around 1150 and expanded throughout the medieval period. It also has some medieval wall paintings, post reformation wall paintings, Edwardian wall-paintings covering a considerable part of the church and it has a 500-year-old alabaster tomb.

The bell ringing chamber above the west entrance porch opens into the church and provides an ideal space for an a capella choir to sing over the heads of the audience.

The play takes us back to simpler historic times through language, music, costume and place. Set not on the pageant wagons, as in the streets of York, but in the atmospheric church, some see it as theatre, others a religious reenactment. It is performed “by everyday folk and is for everyone”.

It was in 1957 when Pat Eastop and the Rev Stanley Young, then vicar of Aldermaston, decided the village needed a Nativity Play. She found the script and designed the play to suit Aldermaston and went on to direct it for a remarkable 57 years until her death, taking it from a one-off to a local tradition. It remains the play she created and in her memory a lantern is lit during every performance over her grave.

A veteran of 20 years, self-described “newbie” Dave Shirt, who plays Simeon, said: “Simeon has some of the best lines in the Play and I was honoured to speak some of my words at Pat’s funeral.” Although he had no previous experience in acting, he was pleased to be asked to join the cast as soon as he retired and found himself very comfortable as part of the community venture.

Aldermaston York Nativity is currently directed by Chris Boott who has been in Aldermaston for 30 years and sang in the choir for 20 of these. He was involved in amateur theatrics since he was 11, starting the Aldermaston Players in 1996.

Now over for this year, Christmas has truly begun.

Rehearsals will start again in late October for the cast returning to the play, earlier for newcomers.