She's a leading light in regional amateur dramatics with a name for her radical re-workings. Her trans-gender 'Snow White and the seven dwarves' pantomime is still talked about in hushed tones…… in Dewsbury. Marlene is also a bit of a committee junkie, an inveterate organiser and with a reputation for not tolerating fools: (i.e. most other people she knows), so I wasn't particularly surprised when she agreed to the Church Councils' request to stage last year's Nativity, although some concern was expressed: Marlene’s the sort of person who has causes. We feared her analysis of Santa’s carbon footprint and her concern that the elves should have a living wage. “After all, someone who wears that much red should be in sympathy with workers’ rights.” She opined.
The committee gathered in her large kitchen, all shaker style furniture and IKEA fittings - very Gomersal. Oh, and she had an agenda. “To bring this story alive it has to be brought into the present. We must make it relevant! We need to make people realise that this story isn’t all sugary-sweet and was about real people in difficult circumstances. The story’s been sanitised out of all recognition and people need to be able to identify with the characters. What would it be like if it happened today? That’s what’ll bring it home to people. This is a story about a young woman at the late stages of her first pregnancy wading through insane government bureaucracy, facing a non-existent transport service, an accommodation crisis and the prospect of childbirth without access to proper health care; vilified by landlords and heartless gits in the pub who moan about scroungers, migrants and the undeserving poor. Sound familiar? It should do.” And so she set about her task with relish - carrying the rest of us, I have to say, rather in the slipstream of her enthusiasm.
Marlene had a bit of a temper tantrum – she called it “creative dissonance” – over the casting of the Wise Men. The Archbishop of Canterbury was not available. “Well frankly that’s ridiculous. What else has the man got to do at Christmas?” Similarly, Radio 4’s John Humphreys and Professor Stephen Hawking sent their apologies. Marlene was heard to mutter something about not being able to get the staff and, without any sense of irony or self-awareness, she muttered about people being full of their own self-importance.
“I’m surprised she didn’t ask the Pope” whispered Carolyn, the church Warden.
“I’m told she couldn’t find his e-mail address.”
Lowering her sights somewhat, Marlene used her contacts at the University to cast the Wise Men who turned out to be Justin (lecturer in Astronomy), Trevor (lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern Philosophy) ... and Brenda, (lecturer in Theology - and convener of the interfaculty working party on Women’s Studies) … and you probably remember that Marlene and Brenda have not been on civil terms since the unfortunate incident at the Turkish bath.
Well it won't matter' said Marlene, all hurt pride and a large gin. “No one will notice the difference: all they'll see is three beards – and that’s before the costumes are on.”
Marlene’s neighbour's daughter, Chardonnay, was cast as Mary, notwithstanding the fact that, even at 14, she was pushing the boundaries of virginity somewhat.
“But she's ethnic. Don't you see she's perfect for the part: so 21st century marginalized, just like a refugee, and that’s what the Holy family became: refugees in a foreign land.” and that was that. Marlene brooked no contradiction.
“Anyway,” she said, gesturing to an open copy of the Bible on the vicar’s desk, “If you knew your Hebrew you’d know that it doesn’t actually say Virgin.”
“Oh she thinks she’s a theologian now does she?” muttered Brenda to Justin. “Anyway, these gifts are ridiculous. The wise men weren’t that wise were they? They’d clearly never had children. Gold, frankincense and myrrh! Really? I always knew men were hopeless shoppers. When I gave birth I’d have much preferred a lasagne for the freezer, some first-size baby grows and a year’s supply of disposable nappies.”
“Hold that thought Brenda! You may be on to something there.”
“And who needs strangers visiting anyway?” Brenda was on a roll now. “It was bad enough when my mother turned up in the maternity unit without warning wittering on about nipple-cream and potato salad. What it would have been like when three sheep-smelling, soil fingered total strangers with crooked sticks turning up uninvited wanting to know the local gossip when you’re still naked, in pain and dazed hardly bares thinking about.”
“Yes, well, delightful as this trip down memory lane has been Brenda, could we move on?”
The rest of the casting fell into place: the local Imam graciously declined the role of the Angel Gabriel. "Well you can take multiculturalism to the point of political correctness and then where would we all be? Answer me that?" observed Brenda. Terry, the local postman took his place in a stunning piece of symbolism that no one got, even when Marlene, to considerable consternation, insisted that he performed in his uniform. “Philistines.” she said, as she explained with elaborate patience for the third time the symbolism of postman as messenger of God.
“Actually, Marlene, point of order. The Philistines were a very cultured people”
“Actually, Trevor, any more points of order and you’ll be the back end of the donkey."
Chardonnay's boyfriend Cameron was drafted in as the innkeeper. (Fortunately the ASBO he had been given for streaking through Tescos as a bet had just lapsed.) A night-club doorman by trade he had little difficulty with the lines, “You can't come in here, we're full” although he did tend to keep fooling around at rehearsals and ad-libbing: “You can't come in mate, but you can, love, we're letting in girls for half price tonight”.
Joseph was to be played by Len, the church caretaker.
"But he's about 1000 years old Marlene."
"Joseph was older than Mary you know.” Brenda was on her soapbox. “Anyway, it says a lot about the exploitation of women in a patriarchal society."
There was much animated discussion in Marlene’s kitchen about what the 21st century version of the stable would be.
A three wheeled trolley in an overcrowded corridor at A and E, while very popular, was swiftly rejected on the basis that the church was in a Conservative constituency and Marlene confidently expected Mrs. May to be in the audience and Marlene didn’t want to be seen to be criticising government health policy, not with her longstanding wish to receive an OBE for her services to The Arts.
“A garden shed?”
“A condemned council flat?”
“A homeless shelter?”
“A one-star hostel. (Did you see what I did there? One star……anybody….. no? O.K.)”
“Did I mention this is going to be a promenade performance?” All eyes turned to Marlene. “Yes, a promenade performance. You know, where the audience follows the characters from scene to scene.”
“A promenade performance? As in outside? At this time of year? Have you lost your mind?”
“I’m led to believe that’s when Christmas generally is. Would you prefer we did it in July? I think it might lose a little in terms of atmosphere and topicality? Anyway Syrian refugees are sleeping outside all over Northern Europe at this time of year so man up Justin! Do you not have a vest?”
Rehearsals came and went.
"Marlene, I'm sorry to interrupt but I'm having trouble with my character in this scene. What's my motivation here?"
"Shut up Carolyn. You’re a palm tree. Any more of that luvvy-talk and you’ll be both ends of the donkey.
"Len, please! How often have I told you? Don't smoke during the birth scene - the baby Jesus is inflammable."
"Marlene, if I hear another religious person say: 'and Wise Men seek him still . . .' I may run screaming from the building"
"Brenda, they're not religious, they're Church of England."
"Chardonnay, Darling, no more piercings please - at least not before Christmas. I'm sorry Cameron ... you've had what pierced? Oh for goodness sake!"
“Point of order, Marlene, technically, its not Christmas, its Advent, which means….”
“Trevor, what did I tell you about points of order and the donkey suit?
“That would be a problem Marlene. None of the Gospel stories mention a donkey at all.”
“Are you trying to trample on people’s long held beliefs Trevor? I really don’t think this is the time or place for Atheism do you? Postman-Gabriel - drop the line about 'Special Delivery', it's not working. By the way, we’re not using the doll anymore." Marlene had decided she wanted something more authentic and had found a family who were newly arrived in the area and had a newborn.
And so the evening arrived - and Marlene was proved right. It was a triumph: dramatic, moving and powerful. The Landlord at The Star and Garter did a wonderful light show. He turned off the garter and left the area with the one blazing star. And yes, people wrapped up warm, loving the novelty of the occasion. There was some later discussion about why Mary experienced the Annunciation in the doorway of the post office but the audience seemed more than willing to suspend their disbelief as it became clearer that Terry was, in fact, the Angel Gabriel.
The stable became an old garage, back-lit in moody tones, the manger: the boot of a jacked-up wreck. Drug paraphernalia littered the floor. Three local characters shared a bottle around a brazier and stray dogs sniffed around the set. Everyone delivered their lines perfectly, and on cue it snowed.
It's hard to believe that it was nearly a year ago now, and here we are again getting ready for this year. It's going to be different this year though. After Marlene's triumph the church council members met in emergency session. Words like uncomfortable, inappropriate, trendy and travesty were bandied about: “All that business about refugees - and using Mr. and Mrs. Mahmood’s baby as the infant Jesus! What was she thinking?”
So we're back to the traditional again: shepherds in tea towels carrying cuddly sheep, wise men in old curtains and angels with tinsel halos. The relevant and the up-to date, it seems, have no place in the Christmas story.