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Aldermaston prepares for its 63th York Mystery, a village tradition

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THE York Nativity Play at St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston, is almost upon us. It will be the 63rd year of the play by E Martin-Browne from the 14th-century York Mystery Cycle.

Performances will run on December 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Thursday, December 2 – 8pm
Friday, December 3 – 8pm
Saturday, December 4 – 7pm
Sunday, December 5 – 7pm

The York Nativity at Aldermaston
The York Nativity at Aldermaston

Aldermaston performs the eight Nativity plays of the 14th Century Mystery Play Cycle each year to tell the story of the first Christmas. Around 70 members of the community of Aldermaston and the surrounding area come together to perform this well-known story. They take us all back to simpler historic times through language, music, costume and place, set not on the pageant wagons in the streets of York, but in the beautiful, atmospheric 12th-century St Mary the Virgin parish church in Aldermaston. Some see it as theatre, others as a religious re-enactment and some as a break in the hubbub of modern-day Christmas festivities. It is a play performed by everyday folk and is for everyone.

Some people have seen many performances – Lesley Woodley 57 years as third Shepherd and local resident Rosemary Campbell who has seen 62 of the 63 years, the one missed was when she was giving birth. It’ll be a first year for Russell Butcher, who takes over the role of the Priest in the Temple scene.

It was in 1957 when Pat Eastop and the Rev Stanley Young, the then vicar of Aldermaston, decided the village needed a Nativity Play. Pat was a local art teacher and well-know member of the arts community in this area. She found the script and designed the play to suit Aldermaston. She went on to direct it for a remarkable 57 years, taking it from a novel one-off to an embedded local tradition.

The York Nativity at Aldermaston
The York Nativity at Aldermaston

It remains the play she created and in her memory a lantern is lit during every performance over where she lays in the churchyard.

The plays are from one of the earliest transcribed play scripts in the English language. E Martin-Browne carefully edited it to make it suitable for performance in the quiet and meditative space of a church rather than the market place. It was his enthusiasm and knowledge that was instrumental in bringing about a revival of the whole Mystery Play Cycle, in York, for the 1951 Festival of Britain.

In this play the dialogue is interspersed with period choral music that was originally chosen by Rev Young. It is sung a capella (unaccompanied) from high up in the bell ringing chamber of the church. It is mostly anonymous but three pieces are by notable composers William Byrd, Johann Eccard and Michael Praetorius.

The ancient, Grade I-listed church of St Mary the Virgin also plays its part with its warm acoustic and medieval origins it simply embraces the costumes, the music and the spoken word to make the play a very special event and a moving preparation for Christmas.

Tickets are free, request by email to the box office: tickets@aldermastonnativity.co.uk or online: http://aldermastonnativity.co.uk/tickets

There will be an exit collection for The Children’s Society and for the church restoration fund.

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