'Best Pageant' takes stage at Havana

Play features trio of North Shore talent

Either you knew a family like them or, tough as it might be to admit, you were a family like them.

The children are less brothers and sisters than they are a pack. A smelly, messy, cigar-chomping, filthy-mouthed, dirt-talking, sharp knuckled, jug wine nipping bunch of part-time pyromaniacs who compound their larceny with nearly spotless attendance records. The type of children who make teachers contemplate early retirement. The type of children voted most likely to be tried as adults.

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But, when you got to know them, were they really so bad?

That’s the question that dances through The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, a play that introduces us to the Herdman children.

Those six juvenile delinquents, we’re told, are the worst kids in the whole history of the world.

The Barbara Robinson play, which Robinson adapted from her novel, is set to feature three North Shore actors in a production slated to bow at Commercial Drive’s Havana Theatre from Dec. 6 to 16.

North Vancouver’s Charlotte Clayton stars as Beth.

“She’s the only character who breaks the fourth wall,” Clayton explains. “People will just magically come on stage (to) play out what I said.”

At 11 years old Clayton has already been acting and auditioning for four years, having made her debut in a B.C. Health video at the age of seven.

Clayton recalls erupting with joy when she got an email letting her know she’d won a part in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. She was, to use her word, “nervous-cited” to be part of the production.

“It’s such a sweet, fun, family adventure,” she says.

Asked about any similarities with Beth, Clayton takes a moment to consider.

“A little bit,” she says. “I think I’m a little bit more a rebel than her. She’s a good kid.”

Early in the play, Beth describes the Herdmans going through school: “like those South American fish that strip your bones clean.”

It’s an apt comparison – at least in terms of one character’s lunch.

Portraying Beth’s brother is Holy Trinity Elementary student Milan Gill, who will be making his debut as Charlie.

“He’s a real wimp,” Gill says with a grin. “This kid keeps stealing my lunch so I lie and say we get all these treats in church.”

It turns out to be a major misstep, Gill explains.

Early in the play a genuflecting Charlie intones: “Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer, Because there are no Herdmans there.”

But that sanctuary is lost once the Herdmans arrive at church in search of cookies and cake.

“Now there’s no safe place for me,” Gill says. “Everywhere I go, it’s the Herdmans.”

Gill thought he might play one of the Herdmans but guesses his comic timing landed him the role.

“My mom actually submitted me for it,” he says. “They saw me more as a Charlie than a mean kid, so I got the part.”

Playing Charlie is fun but slightly exhausting, Gill says.

“I’m kind of over the top. I yell a lot.”

Both Gill and Clayton offered effusive praise for their co-stars.

“My parents, they’re just amazing. Honestly, I love working with them and I learn so much from them . . . the actors who play my parents, not my real parents,” Clayton says, correcting herself. “But I do learn a lot from them, too.”

Argyle grad Melissa Oei plays Beth and Charlie’s mother, Grace.

“I’m just a mother of two kids who finds herself in the position of directing this Christmas pageant which she’s never done before.”

Grace’s role of “just trying to keep it all together” amid chaos is a pretty good metaphor for how many parents feel about the holidays.

While there were a few edits and a “little bit of gender swapping,” the production is faithful to Robinson’s play.

“Christmas I think kind of revolves around nostalgia,” Oei says. “It’s a time when people want to be watching things with their families.”

Oei first stumbled on her love for theatre the first time she saw her big sister in a show at Argyle.

She remembers thinking: “I want to do that,” she says.

Following a stint at CapU (back when it was Capilano College) Oei has carved out a career that has included numerous rules in children’s theatre.

But while she’s performed for children, performing with children was a little different.

“They say if you don’t want to be upstaged, don’t work with kids or animals. But if you do want to be upstaged . . . , “ she laughs.

“The kids are the star of the show,” Oei explains. “I don’t mind just taking a step back and letting these kids shine.

“That’s kind of nice for a change.”

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