This Is My Family - Best Musical 2013

 

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Calander Girls - Vancouver  2012
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CALENDAR GIRLS
IN CANADA - 2012

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CALENDAR GIRLS
IN BERLIN

Calendar Girls in Sofia Bulgaria 2011

CALENDAR GIRLS
IN BULGARIA

Sign of the Times with Matthew Kelly & Gerard Kearns

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CALENDAR GIRLS
IN CANADA

Calendar Girls in Manitoba Canada
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CALENDAR GIRLS
IN RUSSIA

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Lady Cravenshire

Calendar Girls in Russia. Photo Credit: Sisley Paris Company
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CALENDAR GIRLS
IN DENMARK

Calendar Girls in Denmark

Calendar Girls in Denmark

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CALENDAR GIRLS
IN POLAND

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CALENDAR GIRLS
IN BERLIN

Berlin Calendar Girls

The Calendar Girls in Athens

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CALENDAR GIRLS IN
BUENOS AIRES,
ARGENTINA

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CALENDAR GIRLS IN
OSLO, NORWAY

Calendar Girls in Norway

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Calendar Girls in Norway

Calendar Girls in Norway

Calendar Girls in Norway

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Tim Firth Reviews

2016

THE GIRLS

It might be fair to assume that the famous story of the Yorkshire Women’s Institute ladies who posed nude for a Pirelli-style calendar has been drained dry.

But Take That’s Gary Barlow and Tim Firth have collaborated on a delightful musical that is far superior both to the 2009 play, Calendar Girls, and to the 2003 movie on which it was based. Rather than seem like a piece of cynical exploitation, the show suggests the story has now achieved its ideal form.

Part of the reason is structural. In the movie, the collective disrobing happened at the beginning. In the play, it was the first-act climax, which meant the story had nowhere to go. In the musical, however, it is the culmination of a hard-won struggle to overcome private doubts and inhibitions. The calendar is the brainchild of the go-ahead Chris, who simply wants to provide a settee for the hospital where the husband of her good friend, Annie, died of cancer. But, while Chris is eager to unclothe for charity, her colleagues take a lot of persuading. The calendar shoot thus becomes less of a lark than a means of overcoming issues such as grief, age or physical self-consciousness.

The other reason for the show’s success is that it destroys the traditional demarcation between composer and lyricist. Barlow and Firth collaborated so closely, with each invading the other’s territory, that the show has a seamless quality rare in jointly authored musicals. You see the benefit in the opening number, Yorkshire, an extended chorale that introduces all the key characters and establishes the supposedly timeless nature of life in the Dales: “The seasons come and go and yesterdays don’t change.” But the whole point of the show is to dismantle that argument and prove that, through female agency and a bit of Yorkshire gumption, a life of cosy routine can be disrupted.

Once or twice, as when the depressed Ruth explores her reliance on vodka, I felt that each woman was being formulaically given a self-exploratory solo; but even that number pays off since Ruth uses drink to quell her fears about undressing. The idea that each woman has to overcome some personal hang-up is also deftly counterpointed by the portrait of a community and a profusion of verbal gags. Sometimes Firth’s jokes have a touch of the Carry Ons: at other times, as when a harassed mum declares, “If Jesus had had teenage kids, the Bible would have been very different,” you hear an echo of Alan Bennett. But the musical works beautifully because it suggests the calendar was a way of vanquishing private demons. These women strip to conquer.

Firth’s production also keeps them well this side of caricature. Joanna Riding as Annie offers a moving portrayal of marital loss, not least in a number, Kilimanjaro, about the difficulty of dealing with daily realities. In contrast, Annie’s chum Chris, played by Claire Moore, is a cheery soul even if she is now anxious about her pubescent son. There’s good work from Debbie Chazen as the lonely Ruth, Claire Machin as a musical single mum, and Sophie-Louise Dann as a golf-club Delilah.

Robert Jones’s design, with its mountain of kitchen cabinets, imaginatively frames a show whose feelgood conclusion is genuinely earned rather than arbitrarily imposed.

Michael Billington – The Guardian

 

2015

SIGN OF THE TIMES

Modern theatre can have a lot of glitzy embellishments: spectacular lighting displays, moving sets, moments of dazzling audio-visual enhancement, explosions, dry ice, trap doors and all sorts of slick tricks which can wow an audience. But the true test of a play is when it can hold a full theatre spellbound with just the power of the writing and the performances of the actors.

Tim Firth’s Sign of the Times is just such a show. It’s a simply staged two-hander which introduces us to two very believable people who are both at a crossroads in life.
Firth’s comic drama is a timely look at employment from the perspective of a young work experience lad, Alan, and the experienced 50-year-old manager, Frank, who discovers that the world and his firm have moved on without him.

The touching drama explores the relationship between the two and director Karen Simpson firmly resists the temptation to allow the characters to wallow in self-pity and instead seeks out the truth and the comedy to be found in life and unrealised dreams.

Robert Gill as Frank and Thomas Pickles as Alan seize the opportunity to bring to life a pair of quirky individuals that avoid the pitfalls of caricature.

The set by Lucy Sierra is a simple double-sided design of an upper-storey office, showing the exterior in the first half and then reversed to show the inside, five years later, in the second.
A beautifully staged show about the modern workplace.

Verdict: A touching and witty look at life, reality and unfulfilled dreams in the modern workplace

THE STAGE – Andrew Clarke 2015

2013

OUR HOUSE

FEATURING the music and lyrics of the band Madness to illustrate playwright Tim Firth's storyline, this show hits the ground running with a multi-tasking cast who switch effortlessly and astonishingly quickly between acting, playing, singing and dancing.

We get strongly-narrative lyrics, full of social detail, matched with tracks such as Baggy Trousers and It Must Be Love which fit in perfectly with the complex story of five years in the life of young Joe Casey who is trying to impress his first love, Sarah.

Schooldays and adolescence in the 1970s provide the background to the tale of the battle between the dark side of Joe – peopled with sleazy businessmen and thugs – where he gains apparent success, and his light side. His failures here emphasise his shame about all he tries to achieve.

The richly-drawn characters are Dickensian in their variety. There are dozy blokes, whose only love is cars, and airhead girls.

The razor-sharp dialogue and brisk choreography add pace to the story.

But there are lots of witty moments to lighten the tension.

This is a big and busy production in which all the cast contribute to a highly-satisfying show. It would be unfair to single out individuals, although Alexis Gerred as Joe achieved one costume change that was worthy of a stage magician.

Peter Taberner - This is Somerset

 

This Is My Family

This Christmas, Daniel Evans, artistic director at Sheffield Theatres, will direct Lionel Bart’s legendary 1960 British musical Oliver! on the main house Crucible stage. It is sure to be a guaranteed box office pleaser and, going by the production of My Fair Lady that he directed there last year, should bring new textures to a deeply familiar show whose every melody is ingrained in the public consciousness.

But first, Evans is doing something even bolder and more challenging - helping to give birth to a brand new British-written musical in the Crucible’s comparatively tiny studio space. Tim Firth, who like Bart, has taken on the triple challenge of providing his own book, music and lyrics, has fashioned an ambitious social comedy with a first act set mostly indoors and a second mostly outdoors to provide an additional design challenge (neatly realised by Richard Kent with an evocative doll’s house of a set that serves as a hanging frame for Act II’s external location).

As with Firth’s Neville’s Island (first seen at Scarborough in 1992 and soon to be revived at Chichester), a set of intimate relationships are put under strain and tested by an outdoor adventure that goes wrong. There’s an inevitable debt to Ayckbourn (who has mentored Firth and commissioned him) in its compassionate portrait of family relationships and the links between three generations portrayed here. But Firth supports it with his own music that switches seamlessly between speech and song. His songs are delightfully conversational and his jokes are poetically musical. With 13-year-old Nicky (Evelyn Hoskins) as narrator and guide to the story of the family and the holiday she wins, we meet her 17-year-old brother Matt (Terence Keeley); her father, newly turned 40 (Bill Campion); mother Yvonne (Clare Burt); grandmother May (Sian Phillips) and aunt Sian (Rachel Lumberg).

The musical, by turns jaunty and reflective, is warmly inflected and buoyed up by a tunefully terrific original score. Its reprised musical motifs provide an anchor of familiarity as they return (sometimes, in the case of the recurring melody provided for Sian Phillips’s character, perhaps too often), but there’s such wit and overriding warmth that it also provides an enveloping charm.

Daniel Evans harnesses the evocative shifts of mood and melody in this sincere, touching show that is beautifully played throughout, both onstage and beside it (with Caroline Humphris leading an impeccable band of five). Evelyn Hoskins is an enchanting revelation as our narrator, providing a genuine heart to a show that is full of it.

But it is unfair to single anyone out. Theatre, of course, provides a parallel family for many of us, and this show grants us intimate access to a family full of old friends like Burt, Campion, Lumberg and the glorious veteran Sian Phillips, all whom I’ve seen in many shows, and new ones (as well as Hoskins, there’s also terrific work from Terence Keeley as her brother).

Tim Firth has, in every sense, scored a popular triumph. If it ultimately lacks the defining universal punch of Blood Brothers, there’s a bite and brilliance about it that could translate this into a major staple of the regional circuit.

THE STAGE – MARK SHENTON

 

2012

Sign Of The Times

After a hard-day's work staring into a computer it was quite refreshing to view something live on stage and see a real person - but in this case persons - as Tim Firth's engaging new comedy centres upon two likeable characters living their working lives very close to the edge while enjoying the 'high life' at the same time!

As the curtain rises we meet them immediately. Frank Tollit (played furiously funny by Stephen Tompkinson - Drop the Dead Donkey, Ballykissangel and Brassed Off) and Alan (played by Tom Shaw - The Inbetweeners and Skins) are staggering about 60 feet in the air awkwardly installing a large illuminated sign on a crummy old north Yorkshire office block overlooking an equally-crummy shopping complex.

Frank's the company's senior fitter and feels happily and gainfully employed but harbours a wish of becoming a spy novelist while Alan portrays a bored work experience YTS lad dreaming of rising to the heights of fame by becoming a rock star.

Both actors fitted their roles perfectly while possessing excellent delivery and timing so crucial to the play's pace, rhythm and success. And judging by the capacity audience's reaction last night it's a sure-fire winner. They loved every minute of it.

Tompkinson had the audience in stitches time and time again especially in a classic scene in which he offered his worldly and professional advice to his young charge who was, up to a point, completely disinterested. But never be fooled by a youngster!

But the pupil always outstrips the master and so it was in this case. The young Alan proved to be not the bored and dim YTS worker as earlier thought. He possessed well-found opinions but just like Frank he comes close to becoming a cropper.

As the play progresses Alan, looking dapper in a smart whistle and flute housed in his new office on the top floor with sliding doors, climbs the ladder of success and promoted to a manager's job. But does he want it? He now puts Frank through his paces in a reversal of roles but good old Frank fights back in his strict Yorkshire manner.

The interplay between the two never lets up for one moment and they're simply delightful to watch. A host of marvellous comic scenes throughout this cleverly-written play kept the audiences' strict attention particularly when Alan uneasily works a flip-chart while another sees the deuce caught up in the middle of one of their letters in a sketch that Laurel and Hardy would, I think, approve of. The audience roared!

Originally commissioned as a one-act piece by Sir Alan Ayckbourn in 1991, the play has got a strong local connection inasmuch as its director and producer is none other than Peter Wilson, chief executive of Norwich Theatre Royal.

So, if you want a damn good laugh, grab the opportunity.

Tony Cooper - Norwich Evening News

 

2010

Calendar Girls

The story of Calendar Girls is familiar to all (unless perhaps you’re a man, or you’ve been living under a rock), so it’s no surprise to see that this smash-hit show has returned to Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre for another two-week run.

This true story of the determined ladies from the Knapely Woman’s Institute has delighted and inspired audiences for years, and continues to do so in this hilarious yet touching play.

I was one of the youngest members of the audience, but that didn’t stop me enjoying this tale of the WI group who pose for a nude calendar to raise money for a good cause. In fact, the enduring appeal of the story comes from its ability to affect everyone, whatever their age. The themes of loss, friendship and fame are universal, and the play explores these with a refreshing truthfulness and a light touch.

It does take rather a long time to get going, but the smart, funny script and well-chosen cast soon make up for this. A range of famous faces play the Calendar Girls, including Elaine C. Smith as the gregarious Chris, Denise Black as the independent Cora, and Jennifer Ellison as buxom young trophy-wife, Celia. Elaine C. is the star of the show with her cheeky persona and her witty one-liners. She gets many of the best lines of the play, such as the famous ‘Lawrence, I think we’re going to need considerably bigger buns’, and delivers them with perfect comic timing to the cheering, clapping audience.

Of course, the high point of the show is when the ladies whip their clothes off. This is done with the perfect amount of joy and hilarity, with a selection of clever props used to ensure that the actresses don’t accidentally flash more flesh than they planned. There are plenty of whoops of encouragement from the audience, and it’s clear that both the cast and the crowd have a tremendous amount of fun during this part of the show.

The plot focuses on the two main characters, Chris and Annie, but the other women all have their own stories that are developed further as the play goes on. Alongside the death of Annie’s husband, John, we learn that Chris is neglecting her struggling business, Cora is worried about her daughter and Celia faces snobbery from the other wives at the golf club where her husband spends all his time. But the story that really stands out is that of Ruth, played by the brilliant Rachel Lumberg. Goody-two shoes Ruth originally opts out of stripping for the camera because, as she explains to Chris, ‘We’re not all Chrises in this life. Some of us are Ruths’. To see the kind-hearted Ruth’s transition from doormat to strong, empowered woman is one of the small triumphs of the production and has the entire audience rooting for her along the way.
Calendar Girls is a success because it strikes a chord with the women in the audience.

It confirms that during the later stages of their lives they can be as fun, as useful, as relevant as women of a younger age – and in John’s words, that this last phase ‘is always the most glorious’. It finishes on this note of positivity and remains an uplifting message, particularly as it’s based on such an incredible true story.

REBECCA JAMIESON - InformedEDINBURGH.CO.UK

2009

Sign of the Times

EVEN without Stephen Tompkinson and Tom Shaw in the roles, Tim Firth’s hilarious yet frighteningly real take on workplace ambition would have you laughing and crying in the aisles.

Sign of the Times, at Windsor’s Theatre Royal this week, gives us a distinctly all too near life look at how we forget that we may already be happy with our lot as we seek more satisfaction from trying to climb up the greasy pole.

With Tompkinson (Wild at Heart, Ballykissangel, Drop the dead Donkey) and Shaw (Skins, The Inbetweeners) you have a recipe for repartee this brilliant two hander deserves.

Tompkinson plays Frank. Frank is in charge of installations at a large company in the north. Shaw plays Alan, a work experience lad who joins Frank on the top ledge of the company building to put up large illuminated letters.

The advice from lengthy employee to young lad, physical two and fro with the sign, one liners and growing relationship between the pair that follows is jaw achingly funny.

But that relationship sours as a sudden realisation dawns on Frank regarding his position in the company, he is made redundant without even being told.

And in he second of this two acter roles are reversed as the audience grapples with what happens to Frank and Alan as the latter interviews Frank for a job.

As this country battles recession and the threat of unemployment tightens its grip on our dwindling workforce Sign of the Times is, well, timely.

This superb play is laugh out loud funny. A real side splitter. But it’s also a shocker in its own right. We laugh because it’s funny but we laugh because it’s real. If we didn’t laugh we would cry. We also begin to care about Frank and Alan because we know it could be us.

Tompkinson is at his absolute best and Shaw is dynamic.

This is wonderful casting of the highest order and both turn in dazzling displays of timing and acute understanding of the human condition.

This is a real comedy of conscience.

Brilliant. A real treat. Not to be missed.

Paul Thomas - thisislocallondon.co.uk

Absolutely Frank

Director: Noreen Kershaw
Reviewer: Helen Patrick

The song “upon the roof” echoed around the theatre, which was very appropriate considering the setting of the play. The story is about Frank the head of installation and Alan his new Trainee, they are installing the giant letters for the top of the company building “Forshaws”, Frank takes a lot of pride in his work and is keen to teach Alan all of his 25 years knowledge, whereas Alan is young and does not seem at all interested especially at the beginning. The first half flies by without a moment of boredom, the use of metaphors during this act are hilarious. At the end of the first half it made me wonder what on earth they could do for the rest of the show, well it was just as funny as the first half. It is set approx 7 years later and the two men’s roles are reversed for reasons I can’t go into without giving the story away.

The set was exactly how you would imagine it to be, a roof top with an office behind it. Cleverly designed by Rodney Ford gave the show a set that was by no means simple, with a lot of attention to detail.

The second half of the show is based inside an office and again this was well thought out and believable in many ways. The lettering for the top of the buildings was brilliant, there were moments we all thought ‘its going to fall down’ but that just added more comedy to an already entertaining performance.

Geoffrey Hughes and Des O’Malley (Frank and Alan) were both fantastic, their comic timing was spot on, their facial expressions at crucial points and the ability to bounce off one another was pure talent. Considering they were the only actors in the show they kept the audience captivated and ready for more.

The Writer Tim Firth and Director Noreen Kershaw have between them created a show where the jokes came thick and fast and never did we feel like we had seen or heard enough, this is a clever and witty production that makes you want more!

The show lasted just over two hours which included an interval, how Hughes & O’Malley remembered all their lines was amazing, if they did forget any it didn’t show. These are two talented actors and produce a partnership that was like watching a double act that had been together for years.

If you only go and see one show this year get yourselves to Oldham Coliseum, we did a 100 mile round trip to see this and we can both honestly say it was well worth it. Roll on the next production!

 

2008

Calendar Girls

Ten years ago, a group of Yorkshire Women's Institute members stripped off for a nude calendar. One of their husbands had died of cancer.  The calendar was their way not only of raising money for cancer care, but also of asserting their comradeship and plain zest for this brief blessing we have called life.

The tale of the WI strippers has since been made into a film - and now a marvellous, uplifting night at the theatre. It is not the world's most classic drama, not least because we all know what happened (global fame, if we can mention globes).

You sense that the characters have been tickled up a little in order to make them more distinctive. But these shortcomings are easily balanced by the sheer, lovely Englishness of this moving tale.

If it took some brass for the WI stalwarts to shed their clothes for the camera, albeit with tactfully placed Bakewell tarts, then the same must be true of the cast in this Chichester production.

It includes such notable stage duchesses as Sian Phillips, Patricia Hodge and Lynda Bellingham. Ah, the throaty Miss Bellingham: tanned and tending to the spherical, she is at one point found in a skimpy, grass-style outfit which put me in mind of the late king of Tonga.

No less ravishing for that, though. Give that sister a medal. It all opens with a touch too much forced heartiness, but the show soon settles down into a predictable but satisfying journey of discovery, snobbery being squashed, squabbles being settled and everyone agreeing that individual celebrity is no match for the support of friends.

'Remind me to spend the rest of my life in shadow,' says one lady, on seeing how her curves have been flattered by the photographer's lens. It's not a bad creed. At Tuesday night's performance the original calendar girls from Yorkshire were present and spent the evening alternately roaring with laughter and honking into hankies to blot their tears.

There will be more literary plays, but few so cheering.

Quentin Letts – The Daily Mail

 

A lively, funny, heart-warming tale of an unusual group of Northern strippers – that's what The Full Monty was, and what Calendar Girls tries, in vain, to be. Even without the comparison, though, Tim Firth's play is an anecdote stretched so thin that its sentimentality and contrivance are transparent.

When a Women's Institute in Yorkshire produced a calendar showing its mature members' modesty protected only by jam jars or flowerpots, the media attention prompted a Hollywood movie. The play's manoeuvres to get the audience on side suggest the labours of a Disney operation working hard to win over an audience that frowns on artistic photography.

One method is to make the naughtiness cute. These WI ladies are overage schoolgirls, somehow compelled to take part in exercise classes and attend slide talks on vegetables. Saucy photos are a way the prankish pensioners can rebel against their stern, bossy head, who is their daughters' age. Their relaxed, earthy attitude to sex, aimed at the grey market, contrasts with the frigidity of the group's two other young women, who have wretched marriages.

If any doubts linger, there's the killer argument: cancer. The suggestion for the calendar came from the husband of a recently widowed member, and the profits went to leukaemia research. The ladies are "doing it for John", we are repeatedly told, and "John would have loved it". Worthy in real life, on the stage this is emotional blackmail and no substitute for action and character. Apart from the young neurotics, the WI members are indistinguishable salt-of-the-earth types, given to chirpy, implausible wisecracks, and the play has no raison d'être after the photoshoot halfway through (a series of tableaux staged with deft comedy by director Hamish McColl).

In the second act we are belatedly asked to become interested in the individuals, who fret, fight and make up in a half-hearted manner.

The thumping normality of Lynda Bellingham and Elaine C Smith is wearying, and Julia Hills, playing a clumsy woman, staggers about like an elephant in galoshes. But Patricia Hodge and Sian Phillips are dry and droll, and the former, as the widow, is even touching, underplaying her feelings with typical intelligence. They are not enough, however, to justify this muted hymn to female empowerment through getting your kit off.

Rhoda Koenig - The Independent

In 1998 a group of indomitable and courageous women, members of the local Yorkshire Women’s Institute, gathered in their village hall to discuss the subject of their next annual calendar and decided to dedicate it to the memory of the beloved husband and friend who had swiftly and tragically died at the age of fifty four – a victim of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Perhaps there would be enough money from the sales to buy a settee for the visitors’ room at the hospital where he had spent his last days. Their calendar changed the ‘Jam and Jerusalem’ image of the Women’s Institute, and changed their lives for ever, as well as generating around six hundred thousand pound for their cause.

In the play it is the ebullient Chris who comes up with a novel idea – instead of the usual country views or local churches – why not represent each month by posing totally naked, but using the accoutrements of the WI (cakes, teapots etc) to cover the essentials.

What attracted media attention and spread their fame world wide was the fact that these are all women of ‘a certain age’ – gravity and childbirth have taken their toll and it must have taken guts to overcome natural reluctance and bare all. Equally the actresses here on the Festival Theatre’s thrust stage are not in the first flush of youth, and it is only some very clever manipulation and arrangement of props which manages to conserve at least a modicum of their modesty.

Director Hamish McColl, well versed in comedy, emphasises the absurdity of trying to hide the ‘naughty bits’ behind iced buns or a teapot, and the performers are having such fun that the audience cannot help but warm to them and the original mission.
Lynda Bellingham is Chris – an irreverent WI member who only joined in a failed attempt to convince her mother-in-law that she was respectable – and she happily sports the most outrageous cover-up – a flowery confection which doesn’t cover much at all.

Patricia Hodge, as the bereaved Annie, is as elegant as ever, but with her Yorkshire accent giving her a more homely, friendly persona. Sian Phillips, haughtily erect and correct as teacher Jessie, has “become venomous by years of exposure to schoolchildren”, but surprises everyone by being the first to agree to the calendar – so long as there are no “front bottoms”, and Elaine C. Smith delights with her version of “a vicar’s daughter gone bad”, her predilection for jazzing up the hymns, and her revealing rear view while seated at the piano. Gaynor Faye as flighty golf playing Celia and Julia Hills as reluctant Ruth complete these ‘calendar girls’ with Brigit Forsyth the self-styled president of the group, shocked and disapproving – until she discovers it is a point gained over their rival village.

Robert Jones’s versatile set transforms from a village hall into a hill where the seeds scattered in memory of the deceased have grown into a sea of sunflowers – his favourite flower.

The story has been fictionalised, but only altered in small details, and the spirit of these amazing women shines through, with the standing ovation at the end a tribute to them as much as for the performance. The play induces a few tears along with the joy and laughter, and the original Calendar Girls – in black and each wearing a sunflower - were there to share it with us.

Sheila Connor – The British Theatre Guide

Unashamedly sentimental and full of heart and bare-faced cheek, Tim Firth's stage adaptation of his own film script, inspired by the group of Yorkshire WI members who stripped off for a charity calendar to raise money for Leukaemia Research, should rake in a bob or two itself. A West End transfer followed by a never-ending tour is surely assured for a show whose feelgood factor is sky-high and which, through its celebration of female friendship among the middle-aged and middle-class, cannily covers several bases of the theatre-going demographic.

That it does not entirely feel like a paint-by-numbers job is down to Firth's ready wit, a cast who appear to enjoy every minute, and a production by Hamish McColl of The Right Size that brings some of the techniques of 21st-century theatre to a show that might otherwise look very creaky indeed. There may be something odd in the way it makes cancer seem cosy, and its portrait of female solidarity is rosy-hued and shirks issues of ambition and fulfilment in favour of happy-ever-afters. And though it is always too tasteful to offer either real physical or emotional nakedness, McColl's production and Robert Jones's clever design has a pared-down quality that allows the emotions to flourish like the sunflowers that become the women's symbol. There is a wonderful moment when letters flutter from the sky.

Patricia Hodge brings enormous dignity to Annie, whose husband's death inspires the calendar, Lynda Bellingham is terrific as Chris, whose motives become suspect, and Siân Phillips commands the stage as the elderly school teacher, Jessie, who knows how to live. It's guff, but guff that warms the cockles of the heart.

Lyn Gardner – The Guardian

 

Absolutely Frank

Like his early mentors, Alan Ayckbourn and Willy Russell, Tim Firth is an unashamedly populist writer whose chief desire is to entertain. In this he has succeeded admirably over the years, with the hit comedy Neville's Island, the film Calendar Girls (which he has turned into a stage play for Chichester this summer), and the musical Our House, set to the hits of Madness.

aThere is a warm generosity about Firth's writing that I've always found engaging. And if this two-hander isn't quite from his top drawer - it began life at the start of his career as a lunchtime one-act piece at Ayckbourn's Scarborough theatre and has now been expanded into a full-length evening - it undoubtedly proves diverting.

The first half is set 60 feet above ground on a top-floor ledge outside an office. Frank Tollit, an illuminated signage specialist, is putting up a new display for the firm that employs him, "helped" by a truculent young lad in a hoody on a youth training scheme.

The clash between pedantic late middle-age - Frank is one of those fussy, garrulous types who expects everyone to find the details of his job absolutely fascinating - and the sulky teenager is gently and perceptively caught. And the play springs a spectacular surprise at the end of the first half when the true nature of the sign they are erecting is revealed.

The second half is set several years later. Frank is now a member of the long-term unemployed and his dreams of achieving immortality as a writer of thrillers ("Not for ever, just for a bit," he modestly insists) are unfulfilled.

He turns up for a job interview at an electrical goods store, only to the find that the assistant manager conducting it is the former no-hoper from the YTS. Matters then take a hilarious, farcical turn when Frank's lunchtime pitta starts burning in the toaster, sparking off a comic catastrophe.

Firth is excellent on both the psychology of salesmanship and the inanities of business management and motivational techniques, but with this dramatist it is always the characters that matter most.

Barry McCarthy's sad wry dreamer and Rowan Schlosberg as the hapless Alan who discovers that success doesn't necessarily equal happiness are both splendidly funny and touching as the odd couple who learn a lot about life - and each other - as this sympathetic comedy unfolds.

DAILY TELEGRAPH - Charles Spencer

Absolutely Frank

Tim Firth’s former one-act play, commissioned by Alan Ayckbourn, gets its full-length London premiere in Hornchurch.

Fussy, garrulous Frank from Batley, a head of installation sign erector of the old school, is showing hoodie Alan his trade. Frank is not a man for whom one word suffices. Many are cherished, polished, held up to the light for admiration.

Frank’s a closet romantic - acting out his sub-sub Russian spy-style writing and believing that belt and braces gets you through life.

Alan, umbilically attached to his MP3, is a shrugger, a joker and a definite slacker. Clearly not sharing Frank’s views. Left to his own devices, he’s a rocker, an artist and a rebel.

Working 60-foot up on an office building, getting on together, challenges both men into revealing previously hidden knowledge of themselves.

Australian drama school/television-trained Rowan Schlosberg (who plays Alan) makes his UK stage debut, stronger as the hoodie than as office apparatchik. Sharing his long acting experience is Barry McCarthy (who plays Frank), whose professional debut was at the Queen’s in 1970. Directed by Matthew Lloyd, they’re a good team. A special mention for excellence to Rodney Ford’s revolving exterior/interior set and Steve Mayo’s urban soundtrack.

Firth’s play is gently comic, backed by accurate observation of the foibles and unsuspected depths of human nature, faced with irony-laden change. It’s also a technical lesson in how to install signs while dealing with loss.

THE STAGE

2007

The Flint Street Nativity (2007)

The moment every adult dreads is when someone - usually a parent - brings up the time they appeared in the school nativity. The memories of the mayhem and the jealousy of the prime roles being taken by bitter enemies may fade for the participants, but for the parents they linger and it's these that make for a plot that is never riotous but always fun, with a cast filled with plenty of TV faces to recognise.

Kate McGregor in the role of Mary, who is suitably pompous as the classroom swot who can also carry a tune, is perfectly cast and a far cry from Emmerdale's Emily. Neil Caple as Joseph, whose rubbery, childlike faces and perfectly timed asides are faultless and also Helen Carter as Mary Wannabe, Gabriel, "the chief, number one boss angel", is superb as the playground bully.

Stealing the show, however, are Karl Davies as a know-it-all Star of Bethlehem, who gets a large portion of the laughs with some general astronomy-minded nerdy-ness, Daniel Casey as a Wise Man Frankincense with a pronounced lisp and the worldly-wise daughter of a farmer played by Samantha Power, who is simply hilarious in her forthright honesty as a Shepherd.

The songs, amended carols giving insights into the children's home lives, do get a little lost with some heavy harmonising at times, but still succeed in adding a certain quirkiness to the proceedings and, all in all, help make The Flint Street Nativity such a good, fun night out.

The Stage

 

New research suggests 80% of primary schools have given up holding traditional nativities with many being nobbled by the PC brigade. Meanwhile a school in Devon has banned its angels from wearing wings as they are deemed a fire hazard. You couldn't make it up.

But writer Tim Firth could and has, with his Flint Street Nativity returning to the Liverpool Playhouse "due to popular demand" following a successful run in 2006.

And do you know that? Its better. Despite the fact, or perhaps because, there are fewer Liverpool "household names" among the line-up, it feels free of some of the issues which tend to surround celebrity casting.

That isn't to say the likes of Gill Kearney and Drew Schofield (in the 2006 production) weren't thoroughly entertaining in their roles as Flint Street youngsters.

But there's a definite rosy glow of ensemble work about this a production.
Flint Street is built on one single comic conceit - adults playing kids. Of course, we discover over the progress of the nativity the youngsters are really "mini adults" aping the grown-ups who surround them.

There's playground politics aplenty with a little un-PC bullying, a touch of innocent racism, a fair slug of envy and much jockeying for position.

In this unholy rabble of eager seven-year-olds everyone has a chance to shine, whether it be Karl Davies' youthful turn (he barely looks out of short trousers himself), as the space-obsessed star and ass, Samantha Power's droll shepherd or Neil Caple's Question of Sport spouting Jesus.

But the stars that twinkle brightest in the night sky are the demonic "double dare you" Innkeeper, played with gleeful, gurning angst by Alan Stocks and Helen Carter's delightful turn as the Angel Gabriel.

Her Gabriel is forever plotting the downfall of Kate McGregor's perfect teacher's pet Mary, although the little madam's asides give us a picture of a vulnerable child simply trying to attract attention.

Since last year Firth has pepped up the ending which introduces us to the young thesps' mums and dads. But despite that, it still feels superfluous and awkward. The "children" successfully play out the preoccupations, pushiness and prejudice of the parents without us needing to see them.

Catherine Jones - Liverpool Echo

Flint Street Nativity: from the Guardian Guide

2006

School play is top of the class

We never meet Mrs Horrocks in Tim Firth's The Flint Street Nativity, but we certainly feel for her. By the end she has passed out in the school playground and who can blame her? The Nativity play she has lovingly produced in her classroom - on a tiny stage alongside the stick-insect project, in front of the wallchart proclaiming "who's been good" - has turned into a complete farce. The Virgin Mary has a fierce competitor in the spiteful angel Gabriel, Wise Man Frankincense is verbally challenged by a lisp, Herod rages like a footballer brutally brought-down mid-match and the Innkeeper behaves like a psychopath in embryo. To crown it all, baby Jesus's head falls off.

Firth began acting as "Boy Three" in a school Christmas production. That career may have been short-lived but the experience has never left him. Some might even say it scarred him for life. Following the success of his television play, The Flint Street Nativity, created in 1999 (before the success of Calendar Girls), and produced with a hand-picked cast of comedy actors, he's developed the idea into a stage version with music. It's clearly striking a chord in Liverpool, where the advance box-office takings are breaking records at the Playhouse.

Unless you're a Jehovah's Witness ("She doesn't do Christmas or assembly," explains one know-all child), perhaps, or have had multicultural, secular entertainment imposed by a politically correct school authority, the chances are that you will either have been in, or had a child taking part in, a Nativity play. No one will fail to recognise the acuteness of Firth's observation - that what a child says or does so often merely apes the back-biting and swear words that he or she has picked up at home, more often than not misinterpreting them, sometimes hilariously, sometimes heartbreakingly.

Firth's canny look at the behind-the-scenes angst goes straight to the heart of the matter. Who's playing the blue-robed Virgin Mary? In this case, it's the precocious, goody-goody daughter (11 gold stars against her name) of the chair of the PTA, astutely portrayed by Gillian Kearney. While the boys seem happy enough to be relegated to playing such bit parts as "the star of Bethlehem" or a cardboard-headed "Ass", the aspiring female actors are already sharpening their talons as well as their acting talents. And when chickenpox threatens to eliminate Mary, bossy Gabriel (Leanne Best) just knows there is a God.

The fluffed entrances, forgotten lines, brazen upstaging and the distractions of excited parent-spotting turn this Nativity performance into a chaotic, mirth-filled charade, directed with gusto by Matthew Lloyd. The mistaking of a scavenged broken tooth for a bit of Polo mint and of a tampon for a fag in Mrs Horrocks' handbag add to the comic misunderstandings of the biblical story. The carols Firth has introduced are belted out to an authentic-sounding school piano accompaniment, though the witty new words interwoven into familiar tunes and phrases are not always easy to pick up.

If, like me, you're normally allergic to adults playing children, this very decent ensemble cast proves it can be achieved with minimum resort to those cringe-making clichés adults fondly pass off as childish habits. While there are more than enough innocent revelations and playground politics at work to create a colourful picture of the parents of these Flint Street seven-year-olds, it's a stroke of genius on Firth's part to bring on the parents after the play has ground to a nightmarish conclusion. The actors return as the mums and dads of the children they've just played, mingling over mulled wine and mince pies. There's no mistaking where these kids have come from or, worse, where they are going. You may never see your child's Nativity play in the same light again.

Lynne Walker - The Independent

The Flint Street Nativity

Like many people, Tim Firth's first stage experience came in the school Nativity play. Denied the role of Joseph, he lost his chance of holding the hand of the girl playing Mary, who was in love with his best mate. So during the holidays he wrote his first play, casting himself as a prince, Mary as the princess and his mate as the back end of a dragon.

It says much for the influence of our infant years that he's still trying to work it out of his system. Firth's script, adapted from his television play, features as many fluffed lines, missed entrances and cardboard props as you will find in the professional theatre. It also exposes what an ungodly snake pit of paediatric power-politics the staging of your average Nativity play can be.

Some argue the traditional Nativity should be replaced with more secular entertainment, and having seen this you can only agree - there's as much piety involved as a cabal of Borgias electing the next Pope. But though we learn little of the Christian message of redemption, we do discover that the Holy Infant doubles as an extremely effective cudgel.

With the possible exception of Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills, the conceit of adult actors portraying children is usually embarrassing - but Nativity plays are crucibles of embarrassment anyway, so Matthew Lloyd's cheerfully chaotic production turns such awkwardness to advantage. Best of all is the manner in which Firth uses naive comedy to suggest the greater disruption of the children's lives: "Look! There's my mum!" declares Joseph. "Look! It's my social worker!" replies the Donkey. There are moments where you may wet yourself laughing. But it's your own fault for not visiting the toilet first.

Alfred Hickling - The Guardian


The Flint Street Nativity

I vividly recall the excitement with which, aged 5, I donned my stitched-together sheet and my gold cardboard halo to portray an angel in my school Nativity play. But I don’t remember that performance being anything like as much fun as Tim Firth’s play, adapted by the author from his television drama and directed by Matthew Lloyd. It’s a riot; it’s also poignant and beautifully observed.

At a Liverpool primary school, Miss Horrocks’s class of seven-year-olds are getting ready to present their Christmas extravaganza — and all hell is about to break loose. Mary, the bossy star of the show, is immaculate in blue and perfectly prepared, but despairs of her sloppy Joseph, who is obsessed with the television quiz show A Question of Sport.

More worryingly, the Angel Gabriel, a decidedly satanic gleam in her eye, covets the Blessed Virgin’s role and is plotting her downfall with sadistic precision.

The louring Innkeeper is hopelessly besotted with Mary and violently jealous of Joseph; all of them are fascinated and perplexed by the unseen Miss Horrocks’s unfortunate moustache.

Firth, and an excellent grown-up cast on a wittily oversized set by Robin Don, convey precisely and affectingly the anxieties and preoccupations of childhood, as well as offering a penetrating child’s eye view of each character’s home life. As the Narrator, trembling with nerves, scans the crowd for the father he never sees, we glimpse a family about to implode; the Shepherd — daughter of farming parents and, with an uncanny grasp of the cycle of life and death, wise way beyond her years — sings laconically of her dad’s run-in with a group of travellers. The Innkeeper’s passion for Mary’s fresh-laundered wholesomeness springs from the fact that the house he lives in always stinks of beer and fags.

And when, in the play’s final scene, the Nativity is over and the actors transform themselves from the children into their parents, the powerful emotional nexus between adult and offspring is laid bare, with a frightening weight of responsibility on one side and a desperate desire to fulfil expectations on the other.

Lloyd’s lightness of touch ensures a perfect balance of humour and pathos, and Firth’s dialogue is stuffed with juicily comic lines like a pudding full of plums. Altogether, sweet, and unexpectedly rich.

Sam Marlowe - Timesonline.co.uk

Absolutely Frank

Fifteen years ago, Tim Firth was just another would-be writer determined to make a name for himself in big, bold letters. He achieved this by writing a play about big, bold letters. Invited by Alan Ayckbourn to write a one-act lunchtime show for the theatre restaurant, Firth decided the best way to rise above the clatter of cutlery would be a scenario involving two workmen on the side of a building who would be obliged to shout to each other.

Firth has now returned to his debut, extending it into a full evening's entertainment. The first part is basically a reprise of the lunchtime piece, originally entitled Man of Letters, in which we meet Frank, a 20-year veteran of industrial signage who can be moved to tears by the poetry of certain floor-mounted bracketing systems.

It's basically an extended sketch, setting up a sensational sight gag with illuminated lettering. But even within these confines, Firth succeeds in giving the hero depth of personality. For years Frank has struggled to publish a spy novel because, he says, "It would be nice to become immortal - not for ever, just a little bit."

The new second half presents the continuing adventures of Frank, now retraining as a haplessly unpersuasive salesperson in an electrical appliance store. Again, it's a bit sketchy, but Firth diligently amplifies his original themes and tops it with a gag even more funny than the first.

There's great work throughout from Michael Bertenshaw as Frank and Michael Imerson doubling as a truculent work-experience lad and a David Brent-ish electrical store manager. Best of all, there are no noisy diners to distract you.

Alfred Hickling - GUARDIAN.CO.UK

 

The titular hero of Absolutely Frank, directed by Richard Derrington, is a 60-year-old electrician who still yearns to write the perfect Cold War spy novel and be famous.

We first see him high up on the ledge of his firm's roof, trying to install some giant illuminated lettering with the help of Alan, an unhuggable hoodie reluctantly taking part in a youth training scheme.

Without patronising either character, Firth beautifully catches the the stand-off between articulate politeness and monosyllabic impudence, and builds a believable rapport.

"What do you want in life?" the youth eventually inquires. "To be immortal," his mild-mannered elder replies, absurdly. "Not for ever, just for a bit." The writing hits that level of wry, unforced humour throughout - surviving a biggish storyline jump, when Frank returns to the building as a trainee himself, befuddling his sleek but hopeless young boss.

The performances are a delight - Michael Bertenshaw, pedantic, dreamy and wise as Frank and Michael Imerson introverted then bumptious as the two younger men.

Dominic Cavendish - TELEGRAPH.CO.UK

 

First seen as a one-act play in 1991, Tim Firth's Absolutely Frank returns to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in extended form and is promoted from the studio space to the end stage.

The action is up on a roof and as with other notable roof set plays, the humour and the imagery soar. Firth's narrative freewheels, as if released from earth bound constraints.

The eponymous Frank, played by Michael Bertenshaw, has not sussed out life. He is in charge of erecting huge letters on the sides of huge buildings but he would rather write spy novels. God, he has to admit, has given him ambition but no talent. Young Alan, his work experience assistant, has worked out a pragmatic 'do what you do best' approach to life and the delight of this play is that Frank gradually learns from him. Indeed Frank begins to sort out a frustrated assistant manager he meets in the second act.

In Act II the two men are trapped in a large, electrically charged letter O and they share one of the funniest moments that this reviewer has seen in a theatre.

Bertenshaw makes Frank affectionate and irritating, a lovely blend. Some of his dialogue, such as the content of a publisher's rejection letter, seems beyond even comic belief but the majority is bang on target. This is, after all, a Tim Firth play.

Michael Imerson plays both Alan and the assistant manager. His reactions in both parts are impressively timed.

Also impressive are designer Pip Leckenby's huge but manoeuvrable letters.

thestage.co.uk

Table All Set To Be Big Hit

This isn't the first time that a lump of furniture has taken centre stage in a play. Remember the dead body in a trunk that became a dining table in Rope, a thriller which Alfred Hitchcock made into a hugely successful film with James Stewart?

In this new comedy by Tim Firth the object in question is an old farmhouse table that was sold for 60 quid at a car boot and for which a ridiculously gullible upwardly mobile couple fork out two and a half grand believing it to be a rare example of Cheshire folk art.

After a bit of a slow start the play about turns out to be one of the funniest and most carefully observed plays we have seen for some time.

For good measure it is carefully casted too with the delicious Sara Crowe as a housewife with more money than sense who has recently moved to a converted barn from an estate - sorry, a development - on the edge of town. She is at the back of a plan to have a moving dinner party with a different course in a different country property.

Christopher Timothy is nothing like the engaging country vet we all remember but a Europhobic businessman who spends thousands on providing nameplates for his new, unnamed country property only to discover that it is not a birch tree in the paddock but an ash. So Birch tree Barn won't do, then.

Theatre newcomer Jack Ryder from TV's EastEnders lives up to his promise of being a name to watch out for in the years ahead.

The play, about the pretentiousness of those who want to buy into a supposedly more interesting rural lifestyle is awash with very funny one liners, generally getting better and faster as it bowls along.

I could easily watch the whole thing all over again - and might just do so.

Christopher Hansford - Bath Chronicle
THEATRE ROYAL - BATH

Turn the dinner tables

Tim Firth, the writer of hit film Calendar Girls, brings a deliciously dark comedy in three courses to theatres this spring.

aThree households in Cheshire hold a safari party' a dinner party where each course is served in a different house. There's Daniel and Adam, young brothers whose abusive father was recently shot dead, Lol and Esther, upwardly mobile and vulgar, and Inga, a seemingly benign antiques dealer. And then there's the table sold and re-sold with an even more elaborate story added each time. As the evening progresses, the many layers of truth are revealed and matters turn satisfyingly messy and violent.

The Safari Party features a cast of much loved actors including Christopher Timothy (All Creatures Great and Small and Doctors), Jack Ryder (EastEnders), Sarah Crowe (Born and Bred and Four Weddings and a Funeral), David Brown (Hollyoaks), Helen Noble (Hollyoaks) and Illona Linthwaite.

A delectable cast, a scrumptious feast for the eyes and a delicious comedy for the mind.

The Safari Party is a perfect starter to Tim Firth's work, which includes hit British films Calendar Girls, Kinky Boots and Olivier award-winning musical, Our House.

Thisislocallondon
RICHMOND THEATRE

 

The Safari Party

I am convinced there has never been a dinner party quite like the one in The Safari Party by Tim Firth playing at Richmond Theatre until Saturday.

Admittedly movable dinner parties were fashionable in the 70s - the idea is that to make life easier all round, various courses of the meal are served in different houses.

This one starts off with, supposedly, the hors d'oeuvres being served in the kitchen of the farmhouse owned by Daniel (David Brown) and Adam (Jack Ryder). There is little sign of food, and very little of drink but guests Lol (Christopher Timothy) his wife Esther (Sara Crowe) and their daughter Bridget (Helen Noble) arrive and seem to make the best of things in the bleakest room seen for an age, without even, a kitchen table - and on that lack much hangs. The final guest Inga (Illona Linthwaite) joints the group briefly but dashes off in a terrific huff.

The main course in Lol and Esther's fine conservatory at least involves some real-looking food, served on a very fine table which is instantly recognised as the one the young farmers sold to Inga, one of the most imaginatively persuasive antique dealers iamginable.

This is the most outrageous scene of all and some of gags are so noirish as to have this member of the audience gasping in considerable horror! Retribution of a sort eventually takes place at Inga's and heck, she even manages to produce some sort of dessert Many of the stars of this show will be recognised from television soaps - and all concerned turn in very reasonable performances.

The play is never dull although some of the humour is pretty hard to take - however this didn't stop Tuesday evening's audience having a wonderful time. Some, to me, dubious stuff elicited very generous guffaws - but this one is not everyone's dinner of delights. One huge treat is the delightful strains of Herb Alpert's Swingin' Safari' linking the various scenes.

Helen Taylor - Richmond & Twickenham Times
RICHMOND THEATRE

 

Making a meal of falsehoods

A Safari Party is all about eating, moving from one house to the next for each course. But nobody will get fat on the food in this three-act jolly - starter, dinner and pudding - because, in the first place, Christopher Timothy (Lol) and Jack Ryder (Adam)there's not a lot of grub and the people involved spend most of their time arguing and telling whoppers anyway.

The moral of Tim Firth's story is that it is always the best policy to tell the truth - unless you are an extraordinary good liar, a maxim that is doubly true if you live in the countryside where an ill-conceived falsehood will bounce back at you like an echo that has picked up a nasty smell.

Adam and Daniel, struggling farm brothers, are the ones who get the fib-feast going.

They have been talked into doing hors d'oeuvres but, preoccupied by problems - not least the fact that their bullying dad has bumped himself off in a drunken accident - they have forgotten the date and are unprepared for their hungry guests.

One of the unexpected arrivals is Inga, the local antiques dealer. To whom Daniel has sold the kitchen table and bumped up the price by inventing a colourful history for the piece. It is clearly a nice old bit of furniture, but it has one drawback - a number of bullet holes.

Inga, no beginner in the falsehood stakes, has given the table a completely new ancient genealogy and sold it on to Lol and Esther, successful townies who have recently arrived in the beautiful backwoods of Cheshire - and where we join the partygoers round it for the main course.

The true facts about the table's past are revealed in an often hilarious final scene in what Inga calls the 'bothy' behind her shop where scores are settled, traumas revealed and everybody comes clean. Well, more or less.

Christopher Timothy is great as the irrascible Lol, more concerned about a malfunctioning conservatory security light than the carefully-prepared meal, and Sara Crowe is his nice, dim missus who overlays her local accent with a bit of a studied posh. But she still knows how to throw an old-fashioned wobbly.

In an often very funny play, Jack Ryder and David Brown are the brothers laying a particularly bloody ghost and coming to terms with the realities of modern country life. Helen Noble is Bridget, Lol's daughter who finds a way of breaking the pain of broken love, and Illona Linthwaite is the imaginative antiques dealer.

David Henshall - EADT
COLCHESTER MERCURY THEATRE

 

Safari Party Review

This delicious comedy has a dark side as well as plenty of wit, delivered with enthusiasm by a sharp cast

The title has go nothing to do with big game watching on the African plains - although the author does bag some pretty amazing specimens of wild life on the way.

The party in question is a dinner party in Cheshire where the guests eat a different course in three different houses. But what matters more than the food is the table, a cast off from a dilapidated farm house which ends up costing someone else a lot of money.

The table proves to be the key to finding out the truth about rural life - which is a long way from the idyllic scene pictured by incoming townies.

The author's target is pretension and dishonesty - and there's enough of that about to provide ample material for Tim Firth's pen.

The cast are excellent with Sara Crowe (the silly one in the Philadelphia advert) proving the centre of attention as a nouveau riche wife with an amazing strangled accent who finds hidden strengths in herself by the end of the play. Christopher Timothy is her long suffering husband.

Alison Woollard - BBC ESSEX
COLCHESTER MERCURY THEATRE

 

Safari, it was a big feast of delights

The Safari Party is another gem of a British comedy from the pen of Tim Firth, the writer of the hit film Calendar Girls.

He has taken the simple idea of a "safari party" - a dinner party where each course is served in a different house - and given it a bit of a twist.

It is less about food and the conversation which revolves around a dinner table and more about the stories, truth and lies which unfold during the evening.

The group of people who meet for dinner may seem like an unlikely mix, but they all have something in common.

The play, a dark comedy set in the Cheshire countryside, opens in the kitchen of farmer boys Adam (Jack Ryder) and Daniel (David Brown) who start off the dinner party with some interesting hors d'oeuvres.

The next course takes us to the more upmarket home of Lol (Christopher Timothy), Esther (Sara Crowe) and their daughter Bridget (Helen Noble) where dinner is served in the conservatory and the final scene, or rather course, is a dessert of sorts in a shed of canny antiques dealer Inga (Illona Linthwaite).

Although Christopher Timothy and Jack Ryder are the names most people are familiar with, you're likely to recognise all the six actors - it's almost as if there is a television cast on stage.

There are great performances from all the actors, and some particularly-comical moments from Christopher Timothy and David Brown, and there are lots of laughs the whole way through.

It's an enjoyable show to watch and the evening unfolds the truths and lies - particularly about an old country table - are revealed.

Karen Sheal - EVENING GAZETTE
COLCHESTER MERCURY THEATRE

2005

The kinky boots dominate...

The crowd-pleaser of the festival so far is a big-hearted British comedy about a failing shoe factory that revamps its commercial prospects by finding a niche market — specially reinforced footwear for transvestites. Kinky Boots is a polished bit of mainstream cinema with the potential to break out in a big way. Chiwetel Ejiofar stars as the trannie diva who inspires the range, channelling an Eartha Kitt purr and slinking about in blood-red PVC as if he had been waiting his whole life to slip into a frock.

Chatting at the film’s premiere party, Ejiofar claimed he had no previous cross-dressing urges but admitted that the experience had made him far more sympathetic to the agonies women suffer for fashionable footwear. “If I’m out with a girl and she says her feet hurt, I hail a cab immediately.” A true gent then, albeit one who occasionally wears patent-leather thigh boots.

Wendy Ide - THE TIMES

Deliciously disastrous

Having launched itself with How to Behave, an infantile piece that already looks an unbeatable candidate for Stinker of the Year, the new Hampstead Theatre has belatedly got its act together.

Tim Firth's The Safari Party, first seen in Scarborough, is a cracking comedy - cunningly constructed, thematically rich, and above all blissfully funny. Firth is a protégé of Alan Ayckbourn, and the influence of the wily old master is everywhere apparent. You might have thought that the senior dramatist had already explored all possible permutations of the disastrous dinner party scenario, but firth miraculously comes up with something fresh.

The action is set in rural Cheshire. Lol and Esther, a vulgar, middle-aged couple, have abandoned the suburbs to move into a picturesque converted barn, and , to get to know the neighbours, they arrange a "safari" dinner party, in which the guests move from house to house for each course.

Daniel and Adam, impoverished farming brothers in their twenties whose father has recently committed suicide, are due to serve the starters. Lol and Esther, and their bolshie daughter Bridget, are dishing up the main course, while Inga, a local antiques dealer, will be providing the pudding and coffee.

What unites the peripatetic three-course drama is the small matter of a table. The brother sold theirs at a car boot sale after their father's death, where it was purchased by Inga for £60. She then flogged it on to the gullible Lol and Esther for an astonishing £2,500, with a cock-and-bull story about it being a "geniune Cheshire Buttyball table", a "historic" parlour game Inga invented merely to up the price. When the truth comes out, together with news of the price hike, matters turn satisfyingly messy and violent.

Firth's characters are sharply drawn, and his theme - the grim reality of rural poverty as contrasted to the dewy-eyed enchantment of rich incoming townies - is neatly developed. He is excellent, too, on the present age's sentimental attachment to the idea of heritage, and develops a lovely running gag about the provenance of a "traditional" dish called Tollycurney, consisting of ice-cold cheese wrapped in bacon. All this, of course, could easily be by Ayckbourn. What distinguishes Firth from his mentor is his tone.

Ayckbourn tends to divide his comic world - a tough and schematically of late - into goodies and baddies, victims and bullies. Firth blurs the edges. Nobody here is quite what they seem and the play is excellent on the lies we tell ourselves and others in order to get by in life. Yet Firth grants all his characters, even bullying, racist Lol and the fabulously vulgar Esther, sudden moments of dignity and generosity. And the play's conclusion is delightfully wry and touching.

Ayckbourn himself directs the great comic panache on neatly contrasting sets of Michael Holt, and the performances are outstanding. Christine Moore, dressed in truly shocking pink and limping across the stage on a broken heel, is wonderful as Esther, ridiculous, appallingly snobish, but also geniunely likeable. John Branwell is terrific , too, as her husband, a furious comic master with sudden redeeming moments; and there is fine work form Daniel Crwoder and Daniel Casey as the good-hearted, traumatised brothers, from Amanda Abbingdon as the mischievous daughter, and Helen Ryan as the antique dealer whose tall tales cause so much trouble.

This is popular entertainment that combines dramatic depth with a most engaging sensibility. All that spoils a great evening is the theatre's fanatical anti-smoking policy, with such distinguished addicts as Peter Nichols and Mel Smith being bossily ordered to stand outside in the pouring rain.

THE SAFARI PARTY - HAMPSTEAD THEATRE
CHARLES SPENCER - THE TELEGRAPH

A fine feast of prejudices

Esther is in rural Cheshire and she's in seventh heaven - the one pretty amounts to the other to her way of reckoning. With her husband, Lol, who's made it biggish in the world of golf supplies, this upwardly mobile fiftysomething is finding her feet (and losing her heels) in a whole new world of converted barns and bothies.

Just the idea of being able to say "the lager's in the bothy" makes her come over all funny with pleasure. And to socialise with folk who can use the phrase "during lambing" without turning a hair is, for Esther (who is splendidly played by Christine Moore), tantamount to having entered the pages of Pride and Prejudice.

This woman is the farcical reverse-image of those aspiring creatures in Restoration comedy who, having moved from the town, becoming quiveringly phobic about things rural. Esther, by contrast, is fetishistic about the country. But, as Tim Firth's very funny and enjoyable new play reveals, while she may have acquired the odd local knick knack, a conservatory and an alarm system, she hasn't gained any real knowledge of her surroundings or any genuine new friends.

The eponymous "safari party" - a dinner party where each course is served in a different house - might theoretically improve matters. The problem is the other participants. The hors d'oeuvres are the responsibility of two indigent (Daniel Crowder and Daniel Cain) whose abusive farmer father died in violent ambiguous circumstances. Pudding is to be dished up by Inga (Helen Ryan), the antique dealer of Germanic descent whom Lol calls the "Mrs Sodding Bygone Cheshire Expert".

Horses for courses, so to speak. And dark horses, too. The main course is served on the bullet-holed-riddled table where the father met his death. But it's not now in the fraternal farmhouse. It's the pride and joy, in her conservatory, of Esther who bought it from Inga who bought it, in turn, for a tiny amount from the newly bereaved brothers. At each stage in the process its supposed history had become encrusted with fresh, marketable lies. Esther and Lol fondly believe that the holes prove it to be a Buttyball course - an indoor game played by poor Cheshire farmers of yesteryear who did not "have access" to a golf course.

Firth is an Alan Ayckbourn protégé and at first, you feel that the play is too indebted to the older dramatist's techniques. But Firth is more up to speed than his teacher with the weird mutations in the contemporary world where digital life and derelict tradition can suddenly be superimposed.

A note more reminiscent of Martin McDonagh starts to enter the piece. And ass it explores what is good as well as bad in making up stories and false provenances, The Safari Party takes off into an energised madness where the Oresteia seems to have collided with The Antiques Roadshow.

THE SAFARI PARTY - HAMPSTEAD THEATRE
PAUL TAYLOR - THE INDEPENDENT

THE SAFARI PARTY

The Library Theatre, Manchester, is currently offering its patrons a three course feast featuring fake antiques, car boot sale 'bargains' and broken country rules in this perceptive play by Tim Firth, writer of the musical, Our House and the hit film, Calendar Girls.

A Safari Party is a dinner party where each course is served in a different house. The problem here is that the first venue, Sparkbrook Farm, Cheshire is lacking a table and edible food! Brothers Adam and Daniel have sold the family table to a local antiques dealer who believes the tall tale that was used to sell it. When Inga, the gullible new owner of this table turns up at the Farm for the first course, the farce begins. And it doesn't end there, she has since sold the furniture to another guest!

Although this premise may sound corny, Firth has great fun sending up the heritage industry and the white lies which are used to persuade us all that any old tat is worth something as long as it comes with a 'history.' He also takes a few swipes at country life and how villagers are sceptical of classless newcomers. With such familiar targets he cannot fail. His sparkling situations had the audience on the night I went laughing out loud.

Claude Close and Sue Wallace play Lol and Esther, the new, keen-to-please folk with ease. Each time they fall for a scam, you empathise with them as you know how desperate they are to climb the social ladder. But even they have their limits as they refuse to knock their conservatory down to appease others. Lindsay Allen is also wonderful as their cynical fib-telling daughter Bridget .

As the new owners of the farm Drew Mulligan and David Partridge have great comic timing and convey the lads' vulnerability with real aplomb. Jenifer Armitage's Inga is a delight as we see beyond the mask of sharp business woman and view her desire to be accepted by the community at large.

Roger Haines’ deft direction ensures that each course is as tasty as the last and Judith Croft’s amazing set invites the audience into the contrasting houses of the three hosts.

This delectable play is so tasty that as a starter it will leave you wanting to sample some more of Firth’s work.

Glenn Meads - whatsonstage.com

 


SAFARI PARTY @ LIBRARY THEATRE

HYSTERICAL farce was greeted with hysterical laughter. So, hopefully, the Library has a hit on its hands.

The cause of the mayhem is the latest theatre piece by Warrington’s own Tim Firth, he of Calendar Girls, All Quiet On The Preston Front and Neville’s Island.

First seen a couple of years ago at Alan Ayckbourn’s theatre in Scarborough, and then Hampstead Theatre, the author has, I gather, been involved in considerable re-writes for this production.

Daniel (Drew Mulligan) and Adam (David Partridge) are brothers on what is gradually revealed to be a failed farm in deepest Cheshire. Where once there was a famed dairy herd, now festers a council rubbish dump, which the two lads are employed to damp down by spraying it with scented water.

Enter golf shop owner Lol (Claude Close), his wife, Esther (Sue Wallace and daughter, Bridget (Lindsay Allen), newbies in the country and – except for Bridget, who has an agenda of her own – gullible with it.

Together with antique shop owner Inga (Jenifer Armitage) this ill-matched assortment of Cheshire life is supposedly setting out on that great county institution, the safari party, in which one course of a meal is eaten in three different houses.

But, as the plot develops, it turns into a satire on the heritage industry and pretentious middle class aspirations, involving everything from butty ball tables to conservatories erected without planning permission.

I’m afraid I found much of it just too darn silly to be able to join in the hysteria but, especially in the second and third acts, it does have its moments, often thanks to the outrageously over the top performance by Mr Close as a particularly apoplectic bigot in search of revenge.

Good sets too, springing surprises and making a large contribution to the overall entertainment value.

Alan Hulme - Manchester Online


2004
THE SINGING PLAYWRIGHTS

LONG before the plays that made both their names, music was Willy Russell’s and Tim Firth’s first love. In this show, they return to it with a seven-piece band, lyrics to linger over and a dazzling overlay of words and music that you’d be hard-pressed to match.

Being playwrights, they know all about making each word count. But what they are doing here - cutting up and reassembling their selected prose then interspersing it with their own songs - offers them the chance to make their words count in altogether different ways.

The best example is a lovely song from Firth called Same Thing Twice, about all the things a man wants to avoid in growing old, not least repeating himself. Then, while the song is still playing, Russell breaks into a soliloquy from his novel The Wrong Boy, where his teenage protagonist remembers his once-vibrant gran and how she ended up repeating herself. Cue, again, Same Thing Twice: the words exactly the same, but now with a completely different weight. Brilliant.

Both Russell and Firth have the kind of range that would allow them to turn their 90-minute concert in whatever direction they wanted. There’s the sublime (Living on the Never Never <Easy Terms> from Blood Brothers) and the joyous (She Give Me, and its highlights from Shirley Valentine).

These singing playwrights are indecently talented, but Russell’s commanding soliloquies and Firth’s versatile lyrics combine effectively to make it a night that only the coldest-hearted could fail to enjoy.

DAVID ROBINSON - The Scotsman

 

Tim & Willy Russell at the Pleasance Grand - to see more photos CLICK THE LINK >>>
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THE SINGING PLAYWRIGHTS

Take two writers who started out wanting to write songs and went on to write plays, film scripts and musicals, add some highly accomplished musicians, stir in some telling extracts from their works and a few amusing anecdotes, and you have the basic ingredients of The Singing Playwrights. What’s missing, at this point, is the subtle blend Tim Firth and Willy Russell bring to the show they front. Enjoined by a disembodied voice to ‘Big it up massive’ for Russell and Firth, the pair bounced on stage and into the engaging ‘She gives me’, seamlessly segueing into the rest of their material.

In ninety minutes they ranged over some of the repertoire of Firth and Russell, songwriters in addition to extracts from the work of both writers and occasional lapses into anecdotage. Given that much of Russell’s best-known work has been for theatre, rather than film and television, where Firth made his early name, both Shirley Valentine and The Wrong Boy, Russell’s recent novel, feature significantly. As a theatre acquaintance once put it ‘Willy Russell speaks for England’; however one reacts to that assertion, his work remains some of the most profoundly political (with a small but very definite ‘p’) as well as profoundly funniest work to be found on the English stage in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

The Pleasance Grand audience, an encouraging mixture of ages, types and presumably tastes weren’t disappointed in this or other departments, and while neither Firth nor Russell ought to immediately abandon the writing day job, there was enough content behind their deceptively laid-back tunesmithing to make one hope for more. In both Tim Firth’s Last Man Standing (as fine a post-feminist male anthem as you’re likely to get anywhere), and Willy Russell’s Crazy Days, a haunting elegy for our changing times, there’s worthwhile, intelligent songwriting going on. The Singing Playwrights has a single week’s run in Edinburgh, but one suspects that this show is intended to go on somewhere else, sometime else. One hopes so.


Bill Dunlop - EdinburghGuide.com

 


THE SINGING PLAYWRIGHTS

Tupperware. Shopping in Tesco. Growing old. It’s everyday subjects like these that have informed Willy Russell and Tim Firth’s successful writing for stage and screen. So it should come as little surprise that, when it comes to song writing, they produce well-observed, humerous and poignant vignettes - and a decent tune to boot.

This is a really enjoyable show and well put together. I doubt if either Russell or Firth sees himself as any god’s gift to singing, but the singing is only is only one part of a package that makes for an entertaining 90 minutes.

With veteran (!) Plainsong guitarist Andy Roberts directing the five-piece backing band, the songs, including mirthful Scouser’s Europena City of Culture rap, are given just the right weight of accompaniment. There are many priceless moments, including Firth’s tale of trying to conduct an adult affair in schoolboy French, and Russell’s readings from The Wrong Boy, with its fly-trapping sessions (don’t ask: this is a family newspaper), make it even funnier than I remember it. They’re on until Monday, and it would be a hard heart indeed who didn’t take some pleasure from their efforts.

ROB ADAMS - The Herald

 


IN OTHER WORDS
 
Playwright, songwriter and best selling author, Willy Russell and Olivier award winning writer, Tim Firth share the stage in a series of shows that blend the spoken word from their films and plays with songs from their new albums. You get the rare chance to hear music and anecdotes from these two humorous writers and composers. The small but ‘perfectly formed’ audience seem keen to revisit songs from Blood Brothers but the joy of this highly entertaining evening is that this is much more than a rehash of old material.
 
Russell and Firth share the stage with an excellent band as they visit their new albums, "Hoovering The Moon" and "Harmless Flirting". The new material veers from the folk sound of "Shoe Shine" to the melodic toe-tapping anthem "My Little Sister." The hooks are immediate and mixed with moving and funny lyrics which remind you why Russell's Blood Brothers and Firth's Our House fill theatres. There is something unconventional about these two and this comes across in their songs. Themes of old age, lost loves and tupperware have a lovely sense of irony and self deprecating wit but most of all give the audience a slice of reality to chuckle at in recognition and clap along to.
 
Die-hard fans of the talented two will not be disappointed. Russell reads monologues from Shirley Valentine which have the audience in stitches. He also plays the role of the narrator from Blood Brothers as Firth sings his new album title track "Harmless Flirting." The juxtaposition here is ingenious as each song has been hand picked for its relevance to the readings it is framed by. Firth reads a scene from his hit TV show Preston Front. This reviewer would have loved to have heard material from Our House or a line or two from Calendar Girls featuring those "considerably bigger buns" but you can't have it all.
 
This is a unique evening that not only showcases two brand new albums, it also invites the audience to see and hear the talent behind the curtain of two West End hits. There is certainly more to musical theatre than the names of Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber and these two funny, humble and talented wordsmiths provide the proof.

Glenn Meads - whatsonstage.com


IN OTHER WORDS

HEAVEN forbid that any artist should be pigeon-holed.
 
Almost a century ago, the pianist Jan Paderewski became Prime Minister of Poland; only two years ago, Paul McCartney made it to the The Walker with his paintings.
 
Willy Russell and Tim Firth may be best known as scribes, but both have written award-winning musicals, respectively Blood Brothers and Our House. So why shouldn't they mix it as musicians who can also play typewriters and IT keyboards? The result, a miscellany of selfpenned readings and songs is relaxed, pleasant and, as may be expected, often humorous.
 
Thankfully, there is nothing of the feeling of celebrity inflicting mere novelty on a curious audience.
 
If Firth (from Warrington) has the fairer, freer-ranging singing voice, Russell's readings from his play, Shirley Valentine, and his novel, The Wrong Boy, are superlative. He has the adenoidal resonance to take on any accent located at either end of the M62.
 
The 14-venue national tour helps to launch two individual CDs. It was poignant to see Russell reading excerpts from Blood Brothers from the very stage where it was premiered 21 years ago.
 
And it is the music which takes priority here - mostly refrain-like songs, not particularly complex, but with memorable melodies and largely simple harmonies.
There is however, a lyrical link. Both Russell and Firth (as Russell's one time pupil on a writing course) seemed concerned with getting older. There are ballads about youthful love and even warnings about the onset of senility, including Firth's cautionary title Tell Me If I say The Same Thing Twice.
 
Reality wins the day and here are two lads who insist they are still growing up. Hopefully they will be entertaining for a good few years to come.

Joe Riley - Liverpool Daily Post


NEVILLE'S ISLAND

Marooned with good company

Director Heather Davies revealed in Friday night's talkback that, having taken part in a team-building exercise herself, she found that civilisation broke down after only one day.

It takes rather less time for four Salford business men to be done with polite office chit-chat when they find themselves marooned on an island in the middle of Derwentwater, thanks to convoluted thinking by overgrown Boy Scout leader Neville (Chris Myles).

From Gordon (Colin Mace), Angus (Giles Taylor) and Neville's first entrance, splashing through lukewarm water, to be joined by Roy (Alisdair Simpson), the dialogue was fast, pacy and simply tremendously funny.

Gordon, master of sarcasm, has little time for pernickety Angus or religious Roy ("just look for him at the line where the waters part") and only wants to get back to civilisation.

The food has sunk, swimming's out owing to hostile pike and the mobile phone has only enough battery for one call. When Angus uses this to contact his wife the answerphone greets him.

It is only after Neville has short-lived success with rubbing two sticks for hours to produce fire that Angus reluctantly reveals the Zermatt Self-Lighting Stove in his knapsack along with other vital survival equipment -including a solitary sausage.

The contrasting characters strike sparks off each other - there are cartloads of great one-liners such as Gordon's response to look-out Roy's query: "Did you see that?" when he points out that this is "not a good question for a look out" and the laughter was continuous.

The mood darkens in the second half with Roy secretive about his past and obsessed with a falcon flying around the island. In spite of the answerphone message no help arrives and although there is still humour the tensions between the four characters mount as good egg Neville desperately tries to keep the peace.

Finally, author Tim Firth neatly brings together humour and drama in a bizarre and unexpected ending.
Go if you're feeling a bit down, if only to see the moment when Team C try to attract the attention of a passing karaoke ferry with sparklers.

The four actors keep the differences between their characters well defined and their quickfire reactions combined with Firth humour make this favourite play come up sparkling as a Lakeland beck.

CAROLINE FRANKLIN - NEWBURY WEEKLY TIMES

 


We have an interview with Liverpool Daily Post journalist, Philip Keys, in which Tim talks about the IN OTHER WORDS show. here >>