Behold! for the day of the Lord will come," sings a lone treble voice against the howling wind of a December night in a Lancashire village in the late 1950s. So unfolds the drama of magic and a harsh environment in this musical adapted from the book by Mary Hayley Bell.
The piece has come to life through the work of the National Youth Music Theatre; its main characters are the village children who live their own life while their parents gripe and bicker incessantly.
The separate lives of the two generations create the drama when Cathy, the eldest child, discovers a man in the barn. She asks his name and he, startled, exclaims "Jesus Christ!" The wound in his side and the forthcoming nativity play persuade the children that this really is Jesus, although the adults are meanwhile seeking a murderer on the run. We don't learn the man's identity, but the children, led by Cathy, never doubt, even when he is discovered.
Richard Taylor's music differentiates the characters of adults and children: the former cynical, narrow and violent, the latter capable of imagination and sensitivity.
Angular melodies and chopped phrases skilfully depict the angry adults whereas the children are given expansive melodies, gently shifting harmonies and expressive accompaniments.
Cathy's strength and imagination are superbly evoked by melodic contour and subtle rhythms. The music draws on a wide range of styles (at times I thought of Britten and Sondheim) but these are well integrated and the music is unified by thematic repetition and by the taut dramatic structure.
This is not an easy piece and will require considerable musicality from young children to do justice to the fluctuating rhythms, wide-ranging melodies and complex ensembles. It deserves great success for its originality, lyrical beauty and dramatic power that will genuinely involve the performers and their audience.