When a class of older children in a seaside English school are informed by their teacher that this year's promised departure from the traditional Shakespeare production will be a nativity play, they are understandably chagrined. A series of disasters -- the teacher's accident and hospitalization and the substitution of a bombastic local ex-actor who proves to be not a total fraud after all; a confrontation among the three kings when one of them, hero Dan Agnew's better-off cousin Roger, is found systematically terrorizing a group of young children; and the last minute destruction of set, stage and costumes by a mysterious gang of vandals -- at last inspires them all to a fervent performance of the play in a real stable. But McNeill is unlikely to convince similarly scoffing readers that the enterprise is worth the laboriously fanned candle. Dan's real worry -- his father's withdrawal from work and life after a child whose bike he has just repaired in his shop crashes unexplainably -- occasions some sleuthing by Dan who finally links the accident with Roger's dangerous game playing, and there is an amusing scene in an art museum when the children discover that the masters' paintings of nativity figures, while ""well painted"" and even noble, are full of ""mistakes"" -- but still truer than their own dressing up and pretending. However McNeill's heavy characterization has none of the quick insights of her Prisoner in the Park (KR, 1973) and it will take more than either Mr. Agnew's eventual recovery and charitable silence about Roger or the amorphous spiritual clout the author seems to consider inherent in her conventional subject to make us hear that climactic chorus of angels.