GUARDIAN – ALFRED HICKLING - 2014
Tim Firth must have a shelf where he keeps his awards for projects such as Calendar Girls and Neville’s Island; and a bushel, under which he has been hiding his musical talent. Yet like Willy Russell (with whom he occasionally performs as a musical duo) Firth wrote songs before he wrote plays, so it’s natural that the two should eventually fuse.
" Every song in this hugely enjoyable production, centred on a family camping holiday, has a ring of truth to it "
Firth’s debut musical was warmly received on its initial try-out at the Crucible studio last year, and Daniel Evans’s hugely enjoyable production is now on a national tour. The premise is simple: 13-year-old Nicky Perry has won a family camping holiday for describing her household in a writing contest; what we see is effectively a sung version of the prize-winning essay.
Every musical must justify why the characters converse in song: taking his cue from opera composers down the years, Firth employs music as the most comprehensible medium for a situation in which everyone talks at the same time. Camping holidays are no longer a a viable option for the Perry family. Older brother Matt is a monosyllabic goth who refuses to come, having married his girlfriend in a druidic ceremony; grandmother May cannot be left behind due to the onset of dementia; the hot-tub that was supposed to bring everyone closer together becomes the inspiration for a number entitled Never Marry a Man Who Puts a Bath Tub in Your Rockery.
Every note has a ring of truth: Bill Champion’s anguished cry of “Serves you right you stupid orange bastard” draws laughter of pained recognition from any dad who has attempted to pitch a tent in a downpour. Evelyn Hoskins’s sensible Nicky is a winning narrator: chances are, the way she describes her family will make it sound uncommonly close to yours as well.
WHATSONSTAGE – SOPHIE BUSH - 2014
Following last year's successful run at Sheffield Theatres' Studio, This is My Family returns to the bigger, newly refurbished, Lyceum stage, before embarking on a national tour. This is a brave and risky move, as the show's intimate, quirky nature makes it naturally more suited to the smaller venue.
That said, it does not appear lost on the big stage: the cast are certainly more than capable of filling it with their presence, and designer Richard Kent has done a good job of scaling up his eye-catching design.
The cast make a strong ensemble, but the show's irresistible charm is largely due to the phenomenal central performance of Evelyn Hoskins as thirteen-year-old Nicky. Never straying anywhere near the twee or the cloying, Hoskins perfectly captures the physicality, speech patterns and attitudes of our likeable child narrator, drawing us into her world and her family. Equally convincing is Terence Keeley as her seventeen-year-old brother Matt, whose portrayal of teenage boyhood has the audience is stitches.
At times, the script relies a little too heavily on stereotype, and the emotional journeys the characters make are hardly unexpected, but the minutiae of family life is nicely observed, and cleverly recreated in Tim Firth's expertly layered score and lyrics.
There are a couple of haunting melodies and catchy numbers you will go home humming, but there is just as much joy in sections of overlapping recitative about the post and the washing. All in all, a very enjoyable production.
THE STAGE – ROGER FOSS - 2014
Part family saga of self-discovery, part paean to the pitfalls and pleasures of parenthood, part down-to-earth domestic comedy and partly tapping into the current popularity of researching family history, Tim Firth’s lively and life-affirming new musical comedy received high critical praise when it premiered at the Crucible Studio last summer. And it now - ahead of a four-date national tour - makes the short hop across the road to reopen the Lyceum, where a three-month break for a £1.9m renovation has added yet another important landmark to this Edwardian-era venue’s long genealogy, a significant chunk of the funding coming from Sheffield Theatres’ own extended family of supporters and donors.
During the intervening period, while the Lyceum’s technical facilities were being upgraded and front-of-house facilities dramatically reconfigured (including a major refurbishment of the Balcony seating), Firth has taken time off to brush-up his original witty script and fine-tune his tuneful score, and director Daniel Evans has expanded his in-the-round studio staging to embrace a proscenium-framed space.
The theatre’s newly installed state-of-the-art lighting system certainly throws a bright new shine on the story of 13-year-old Nicky taking mum, dad, granny, her moody teen brother and embarrassing auntie on a dream holiday of a lifetime that turns into a nightmarish voyage of self-discovery. And the set design - a sliced-through typical semi-detached home filled with the clutter of family life that changes symbolically from a half-way house held together by chipboard into a wild wood where the family tree is rooted - has been reframed to fit the new space and ought to slot neatly into the production’s scheduled touring venues.
The original cast not only reprise their roles from the original run, with the magnificent Marjorie Yates joining them as the hymn-singing gran edging towards memory loss, but they seem to have grown into the heart and soul of these characters. Apart from giving full measure to Firth’s intertwining songs and dialogue, backed by a five-piece onstage band, they bring a recognisable reality to three generations of an ordinary family where everyone is at a turning point and inherited genes are in danger of becoming become disunited.
Overall, Firth’s sparky, light touch approach never manages to quite reach the comic and dramatic potential he achieved in Our House, Calendar Girls or Neville’s Island, recently revived at Chichester and about to transfer to the West End. Even so, there is genuine theatrical depth in Evans’ immaculate production, ensuring that the fun comes from watching a family bickering along but sticking together after teetering on the brink of falling apart, with Evelyn Hoskins giving a stand-out performance as wide-eyed Nicky, the cheeky catalyst for change.
If part of the thinking behind the Lyceum refurbishment is to enable the company to originate more touring work, they’ve got off to a terrific start with this enjoyable family-friendly, medium-scale musical.
Verdict: Tim Firth’s reworked family musical heralds a new era for the refurbished Lyceum
BROADWAY WORLD – RUTH DELLER - 2014
The Sheffield Lyceum has reopened, following a £1.9 million refurbishment programme, and the show chosen to launch it was This is My Family, Tim Firth's musical that enjoyed a short and well-received run in the city's Crucible Studio theatre in 2013. This production, directed by Daniel Evans, reunites five of the six original cast members (Evelyn Hoskins, Bill Champion, Clare Burt, Terence Keeley, Rachel Lumberg) with Marjorie Yates taking over the role of grandmother May.
The musical, which will tour nationally following its Lyceum run, focuses on the lives, loves and labours of an ordinary family as they embark on one extraordinary holiday. The story is told through the eyes of teenager Nicky (Evelyn Hoskins) whose observations of her parents, brother, aunt and grandmother are in turns acerbic and poignant.
The musical successfully gets across the sense of life in a 'normal' family: its absurdities, tragedies, conflicts and celebrations, and it no doubt helps that the cast have performed this together before, as there is a real chemistry between the performers and this brings great energy to the scenes, allowing the audience to laugh, cry and reminisce along with them. I heard several members of the audience exclaiming at different points that Firth's observations were spot on and just like their own families.
Last time I reviewed the musical, I wondered about its ability to transcend the intimacy of a theatre like the Studio, but the lighting and design team have managed to make the production fill the stage, despite, for the most part, using the same multi-levelled staging as in the earlier version - creative use of furniture and lighting allows the domestic setting to expand, whilst the larger stage affords room for the live band to appear onstage alongside the cast.
When I saw the musical in 2013, I had some reservations about the score. I would like a little more variety in the songs, but their charms won me over more successfully this time, partly because the larger stage affords more theatricality in their performance, something Rachel Lumberg (Sian) and Bill Champion (Steve) in particular get to exploit in their solo numbers.
Whilst the story is somewhat predictable, and one of the key plot threads (about Abu Dhabi) dropped with no explanation, the dynamics between the characters, the observational humour, and the effervescent performances of the cast, make this an enjoyable night out that is likely to please a wide audience.
EAST ANGLIA DAILY TIMES – ANDREW CLARKE - 2014
They say that they don’t write ‘em like they used to. That’s true. Modern musicals are different. Some are better. This Is My Family is a brilliant example of just such a show.
Penned by Tim Firth, author of Neville’s Island, Calendar Girls and Our House, is an engaging, truthful look at family life. What makes this such a remarkable piece of theatre is that the family captured in this bittersweet portrait is not remarkable – they are every family. They are us.
Firth is not interested in caricatures or clichéd situations. Each member of the family is lovingly and carefully drawn and the scenes capture real scenes from daily life that we can all identify with.
Tim Firth is a master observational comedy and now he has created an observational musical. What makes this such a genuine treat is the way that he has woven the music into the narrative so it feels like a play but is virtually sung through.
Dialogue and lyrics overlap, music rises and falls as it changes from dominant melody to subtle underscore. The entire thing emerges as a glorious musical tapestry.
Director Daniel Evans has done a cracking job at keeping the action moving and keeping the focus on the relationships pin-sharp. But equally importantly he doesn’t miss an opportunity to extract as many laughs as he can from the trials and tribulations of our alter-egos up on stage.
He is helped in this by a first-rate cast who all deliver, truthful performances, never once straying into the over-the-top world of the Broadway showstopper. Instead we get a quieter, more insightful, certainly more intimate world which we can empathise with.
Although this is very much an ensemble show, our focus falls on the wonderfully charismatic Evelyn Hoskins, who plays the 13 year old Nicky. We see this family through her eyes.
Nicky has just won a writing competition in which she had to describe her family. Her reward? An all-expenses paid family holiday.
Does she want to go on safari, visit the Far East, lay on a sun-soaked beach? No she and her folks head off for a soggy camping holiday in the New Forest.
That’s all you need to know. The show is best experienced without any knowledge of what is coming next. Like life it should unfold before you. Hoskins co-stars are all equally real. Bill Champion plays Steve the Dad, Clare Burt is Yvonne the Mum, a loving pair who are starting to get worn down by the grind of daily life and are, perhaps, starting to take each other for granted, Rachel Lumberg is Yvonne’s sister Sian, who, instead of opting for long-term monogamy, runs through a series of relationships which look exciting on the surface but are obviously not as fulfilling as she would have you believe, Terence Keeley plays Matt, Nicky’s uncommunicative older brother, he has one of the most moving journeys of all, and Marjorie Yates is touching as Steve’s Mum May, who is starting to become a little forgetful.
This is a musical that feels like a play. It’s fiction that echoes real-life and it translates into one of the most enjoyable, most entertaining evening’s you will have at the theatre. This is my show of the year.
A brand new musical comedy
Book and music by Tim Firth
Close relatives. Dream holiday. Total nightmare.
Imagine you entered a magazine competition to describe your family.
Imagine you came first and won a dream holiday for the lot of you, anywhere in the world.
Then imagine you’re thirteen and what you’d written was a load of lies ‘cause actually you feel your family is on the verge of splitting up.
Where is the one place on earth you could take them that might make a difference?
Sian Philips as May and Evelyn Hoskins as Nicky
THIS IS MY FAMILY
Yvonne - Clare Burt
Steve - Bill Champion
Nicky - Evelyn Hoskins
Matt - Terence keeley
Sian - Rachel Lumberg
May - Sian Philips
"His (Tim Firth's) songs are delightfully conversational and his jokes are poetically musical..."
|THE STAGE – MARK SHENTON|
|CLICK TO ENLARGE IMAGES|
"This is enchanting: sweet as a nut, funny, truthful, glorying in grumpy family love."
|LIBBY PURVES - THE TIMES|
Tim Firth and Daniel Evans on THIS IS MY FAMILY
The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, has a great reputation for large-scale productions of musicals, but This is My Family (which opens later this month) is certainly not one of them. Director Daniel Evans emphasises the importance of the intimate production style in the Studio and writer/composer Tim Firth (of Calendar Girls fame) regards keeping the characters and plot within fairly strict limits as essential to its success:
"It's a play about a family. The main character is a 13-year-old girl and her competition entry starts the whole story off. I sort of fell in love with her because she had a certain spirit about her and I thought, ‘The whole story is going to be told by this girl.' We see the family from her perspective and this meant the whole massive scale that can overwhelm you when you're writing a musical just disappears because we can only see what she sees. Gradually this story defined its own rules because, once I had the family, as soon as I tried to introduce a character outside the family, it all took a nose-dive. There could only ever be six characters, the family, in this play."
The girl's competition-winning entry about her family tells of her idealised family, not the squabbling one she sees every day, and the prize is a dream holiday for her, her truculent 17-year-old brother, mother, father, aunt and grandmother. So the focus is simply on a family taking a holiday together: as Tim says, you can expand the orchestra if you like (it's a five-piece band at Sheffield), but don't go beyond those six characters.
The genesis of This is My Family comes from Tim's plan to write a comedy about a disastrous camping holiday, but it seems it took on a life of its own:
"In the first scene I wrote the character came on stage and she sort of sang the opening lines and I wasn't expecting that. It seemed natural for her to sing this line, so I thought, ‘I'll just go with it.' The story seemed to tell itself most naturally through songs.
"I wrote the first act, then borrowed the rehearsal room where we were rehearsing the Calendar Girls tour and organised a little workshop myself about three years ago. Then I came up here and sat with Daniel on the stage of the Lyceum, just me and him and a bottle of water and a piano. I didn't tell him anything about the story, just sang all six parts to him in that huge empty theatre. And he said he'd like to hear the second act and I came back three or months later and did the same thing again."
Or, as Daniel Evans puts it, "Within minutes I knew we had to do it. It's a potent combination of beautiful melodies, hilarious dialogue and incredibly warm subject matter presented with great affection and humour. It's the sort of family we all recognise. It's not an unhappy family – there's love there – but they've just lost their way and there's this 13-year-old girl who's trying desperately to hold it all together."
Daniel's production configures the Studio with a thrust stage ("like a mini-Crucible") and, remarkably, features three of the actors who first workshopped the play with Tim Firth three years ago: Bill Champion as dad, Rachel Lumberg as his over-loud sister-in-law and Sian Phillips as grandma, described in some publicity as "loveable". As for the music, both Daniel and Tim stress the folk elements in it, nothing so complex as to obscure the fast-moving comedy of the text – and certainly no reliance on grandiose musical settings or blockbuster effects. As Tim says:
"The musicals I admire most are those which are robust enough to need nothing but the characters and the story and the songs."
Musical take on meaning of modern family
A successful playwright and the author of hit movie Calendar Girls, Tim Firth has set himself another challenge. Yvette Huddleston spoke to him about his new musical.
“I have a love hate relationship with musical theatre,” says Tim Firth probably best known as the author of the film and stage versions of the hugely popular and phenomenally successful Calendar Girls. “I love certain musicals and find others hard to sit through, but I had always mulled over the idea of writing one.”
Firth is currently working with Sheffield Theatres where later this month the Crucible Studio will host the world premiere of his new musical This is My Family, with artistic director Daniel Evans at the helm.
Since taking on the role of artistic director at Sheffield, Evans – an accomplished musical theatre actor in his own right – has been something of a champion of the musical form. He starred in the theatre’s well received 2011 production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company and directed last year’s Christmas show My Fair Lady with Dominic West as Professor Higgins.
Firth says that Sheffield was suggested to him as a possible venue by the producer of Calendar Girls. “So without ever having worked at the theatre before, I got on a train and came to meet Daniel Evans,” he says. “I sat him down on the stage and, without him knowing anything about the idea, I played him the first act myself on the piano and played all the parts. At the end he said ‘do you want me to commission it?’ and I said ‘I just want to know if you are interested enough to see the second act.’”
Evans was interested so Firth went away and wrote the second act, came back to give Evans another one-man presentation of the second half and the piece was commissioned.
This is My Family tells the story of what happens when an ordinary family – mum, dad, teenage children, grandmother and aunt – go on a ‘holiday of a lifetime’ won by daughter Nicky. The idea has an interesting genesis – Firth already had a “quite complicated” idea for a musical which he abandoned after a frustrating meeting discussing it with a producer in London.
“Afterwards I said to my agent ‘I’m going to spend the rest of my life explaining to people what it isn’t; I should just write a musical about a family going on holiday together...’ I believe in things that come out of nowhere.”
He was originally going to develop the idea as a play focussing on the comic potential of holidaying with teenagers and says he didn’t know at that stage what direction it would take until he began to draw the central characters.
“I had the character of the 13-year-old daughter and she came on stage and said ‘Ok this is my family’ and she started to sing and I went from there,” says Firth. “It developed into a musical that asks the question ‘what is the point of family?’ in our modern age, when most families are under pressure to split up or move apart if things start to go wrong. We are in the habit today of thinking that if things aren’t working, we just move on and start again; I didn’t set out to write that, I set out to write about a group of people in a tent.”
This is not Firth’s first involvement with the musical form – a decade ago he wrote the script for Our House which featured music and lyrics by Madness. The production went on to win an Olivier Award for best new musical in 2003. However, with This is My Family, Firth has been responsible for creating the entire show – writing all the dialogue, music and lyrics himself, which is rare. “The thing that comes first is the story,” he explains. “And there was a feeling as I was writing the text that – here is a point where people in their hearts would sing. It is usually a moment that is moving or funny. As long as I kept telling myself it was just a comedy where sometimes people sing rather than thinking I was writing a musical, then that was less daunting and I kept running with it.”
Music was very definitely Firth’s first love. As a child and teenager, growing up in Cheshire, he spent most of his time entering music competitions and writing songs. Then just before going away to Cambridge to read English, he enrolled on an Arvon course at Lumb Bank near Hebden Bridge. The tutor was Willy Russell and it changed his life – he decided to become a writer. “I think sometimes you have to be shocked into making decisions,” he says. “If I had thought about being a playwright I would never have done it.”
He is happy that the collaboration with Sheffield has allowed him to combine his two great passions. “What’s been great is that the piece completely dictated its own terms,” he says. “Because it was all written as a comedy, whenever I strayed into it becoming a more conventional musical I stopped because it was not right for the story – it felt arch and wrong.”
Firth says that his approach to writing has always been to follow his instinct and to avoid planning or strategising. “The less you give yourself time to think and the more you write from the heart, the better,” he says. “I have never had a mission. When I work the mission emerges out of the comedy.”
It certainly paid dividends with Calendar Girls when he was brought in to save a film script that wasn’t working. “I wrote with great freedom; I just thought ‘I will base it on my mum and her friends’,” he says. “The area I was most interested in was the group comedy. When I developed it for the stage, that was the most rewarding – it was much easier to achieve that on stage than on film. There is something very special about comedy in the theatre – when it’s good and people are laughing, it’s the best it can be.”
Tim Firth unveils musical This Is My Family
Sulky teenagers, stressed parents, overbearing in-laws - writer Tim Firth, who penned Calendar Girls, is singing the praises of the modern British family in a new musical comedy.
Thirteen-year-old Nicky dreams of having the perfect family. In an attempt to win an idyllic holiday, she writes a competition entry about her happy and harmonious household.
Except in reality it is not very happy and harmonious at all.
"They're not dysfunctional, but they're a normal family that's fallen into tramlines, emotionally and spiritually, and have their own problems," Firth says. "Nothing I hope any family in the country wouldn't recognise to some degree."
Nicky's family fortunes unfold in Firth's new musical This Is My Family, which opens at the Sheffield Crucible on Wednesday.
Firth, known for writing the screen and stage versions of Calendar Girls, the Madness musical Our House and the film Kinky Boots, says he thought it would be funny to base a comedy on "disastrous holidays that I can remember from my childhood".
"That's where I started off," he says.
"But what it's evolved into, I think, is something about family and about what family means.
What the value of it is, what the point of it is in an age when 50% of the family in any kid's class will be of a different structure - there will be parents who have gone apart and remarried.
"None of that I particularly intended."
Nicky - who is actually played by 25-year old Evelyn Hoskins - comes to realise that her clan, which includes her mum, dad, brother, aunt and grandmother, is in real danger of breaking up. So she tries to bring them back together.
Firth describes the story as "optimistic". As befits a feelgood comedy, it could come across as rose-tinted and idealistic.
The writer says: "There is this sense [in society] of, what is the point of families keeping together in a world which is increasingly telling you that, if you're not happy, you erase and start again? Get out, don't put up with second best.
Tim Firth's other credits include the TV drama All Quiet on the Preston Front. "There is a danger of couples forgetting what brought them together in the first place and jumping ship more quickly than they possibly need to.
"It's not for a moment suggesting that all families stay together - that would be unfair and unhelpful.
"But there is a sense within the story that this is a family that could have done that [broken up], but actually what they needed to do was to look inside for what was wrong."
The audience sees the family through Nicky's eyes. From the moment Firth wrote her first line - "OK, so this is my family" - he decided it would sound better if it was sung, and so the show became a musical.
Clare Burt plays mum Yvonne, Bill Champion is dad Steve and grandmother May is played by West End veteran Sian Phillips.
It is a member of the lesser-spotted breed of new British musicals that are not based on existing films, books or band back catalogues. As such, it is a tough sell and is starting out in the Crucible's cosy 400-capacity studio.
"Getting people to take a risk on coming to see a musical now is almost unheard of," Firth says. "We don't have that culture in this country.
"Normally they've been based on something people know. It's a movie or a back catalogue. There's something that removes the risk, and with this there isn't anything that removes the risk.
"This is a new story they've never heard of from a writer who's never really written a musical before in a studio space, so it's triple scary.
"The problem is that a lot of the time, a new musical, and especially one in a studio, people may feel that it's an experimental, discordant, scary new music thing. Which of course this show isn't.
"This show is very, very simple and I hope as accessible as a straightforward comedy. It just happens to take flight with music."
If This Is My Family does well in the studio, it may graduate to larger theatres. If it does not, it will not.
To illustrate the chasm between brand new musicals and adaptations, a stage version of Kinky Boots is currently sweeping all before it on Broadway, recently winning six Tony Awards. (Although it is questionable how many American punters have seen the original 2005 British film, for which Firth co-wrote the script.)
Firth has not yet seen that musical. "It's very strange," he says. "It's rather like having an adopted child growing up in another country. I'm not quite sure how much of him or her I will recognise when it returns.
"I went online and saw one of the song titles and thought, I'm sure I wrote that line. But I'm very proud that it's had this other life and it's great that they've made it a success because there are a lot of films out there and it's lovely for them to have seen it.
"And actually, more people know about the movie now than six months ago."
This Is My Family has a long way to go. The writer admits that there are "huge elements" of his own family in its characters. So will the Firths be going on a family outing to the show's opening night?
"Do you know what, we were going to be," he replies. "But one of the kids said, 'Actually, can I go to Milly's party?' So she will come on another night. That's what families are like."
BBC.co.uk – Ian Youngs – BBC Arts reporter
THE STAGE – MARK SHENTON
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 TIMES – LIBBY PURVES
This is enchanting: sweet as a nut, funny, truthful, glorying in grumpy family love. It was written by Tim Firth (of Calendar Girls), was commissioned and is lovingly directed by Daniel Evans, and its characters are deliberately unexceptional: Dad turning 40, prone to over-ambitious DIY and unwise sports; his aged mother, May, moving into dementia (and into the crowded home); Mum folding laundry and calming rows; divorced Auntie Sian; a sullen Goth son. And, at its heart as narrator, the sweetly sane 13-year-old daughter Nicky. She has won a holiday competition and rashly opts for a campsite where her parents met as teenagers.
They could be sitcom-Simpsons people in their clever multilayered dolls-house set, and indeed the jokes are excellent. But somehow, without fuss or formality, Firth made it into a musical so threaded with recitative and informal fragments of song as to be almost operatic.
If at times the music seems repetitive, its subtlety and lyrical purpose makes you welcome back each theme: Nicky’s triumphant or frustrated “This is my fa-milee!”, old May’s fragments of hymn about a light burning on the moor and the mist that rises like her own confusion. The comedy is elevated by the almost casual songs, with strings, accordion and keyboard at the stage’s side. It becomes a celebration of the splendours and sorrows of any house, on any street.
Evelyn Hoskins is terrific as Nicky, convincingly childlike and singing like a bird. Terence Keeley grunts beautifully as the son stumping in with: “I’ve just married Rachel in a Druidic handfasting, so I’ve got a new family.” To which his father Steve (Bill Champion) retorts: “Wrapping damp leather round your wrists in a forest with a candle in a goat’s skull is not marriage.” He and Mum Yvonne (Clare Burt) are perfect, Rachel Lumberg hilarious as the sister-in-law. Her instructive sung lecture on sex with new men compared to changing your car deserves immortality. And Granny May, infinitely touching, is the great Siân Phillips.
What could be schlocky never is, because the music carries too real an emotion and unsignalled jokes prevent it. Old May, grumpily sharing a bedroom with Nicky, asks when her bedtime is and the child retorts: “Fifteen minutes later with each birthday. I go at half-past nine. So you probably go some time next March.” As for the “Hamsterdam” tale, it has exactly the quality of any good family’s rueful legends. I defy you not to melt.
SHEFFIELD TELEGRAPH - JANE TADMAN
Anyone who’s ever had a family, ie just about everyone, will find something to relate to Tim Firth’s cheery, chirpy new musical comedy.
The creator of the film Calendar Girls applies a similar feel-good factor to this slight but engaging tale.
Delightful 13-year-old Nicky, moody teen brother Matt, and her 40-something mum and dad are hardly the dysfunctional family suggested by the pre-performance blurb. Rather they’re a lovely bunch of recognisable, very normal people at differing, sometime clashing phases of their lives, and dealing with its various vicissitudes with humour and warmth.
In fact it’s the warmth emanating from the small stage that is this production’s greatest strength. This Is My Family might be a touch soft-centred and at times sentimental for some tastes but it’s also very charming – and simply impossible to dislike.
What’s clever is the way that Firth doesn’t stop and start the narrative for a song. To a tight, live on-stage accompaniment, the cast ably switch from speaking to singing with natural ease.
And of course it has the wonderful Sian Phillips as May, a sparky 80-year-old grandma in the early stages of dementia. Phillips supplies the pathos and has a host of memorable lines, not the least when she sings in that rasping drawl: “Love is what’s left when you’ve sucked off all the chocolate and are left with the nut...”
Evelyn Hoskins’ Nicky is sweet and lovable without being sickly, and Terence Keeley’s grunting adolescent boy Matt is hilarious.
Bill Champion makes bumbling dad Steve deeply likeable, while Clare Burt’s Yvonne is a wistful middle-aged mum wondering where her youth went. Rachel Lumberg as her larger-than-life sister Sian completes a first-rate line-up.
Director Daniel Evans has barely put a foot wrong during his Crucible tenure and surely has another hit on his hands.
THE INDEPENDENT - JONATHAN BROWN
Playwright and composer Tim Firth has emerged as inheritor of a British musical tradition laid down by Lionel Bart and Willy Russell. Director Daniel Evans meanwhile, is being seriously talked about as the next artistic director of the National Theatre.
The prospect of these two big names producing a new musical in the intimate confines of the Crucible Studio was an exciting one even if the subject matter – an unsuccessful family holiday - seemed a little lacking in grandeur.
At times, during the first act it did seem a bit of a high wire endeavour trying to wring the necessary drama out of the mundane domesticity of mid-life crisis and teenage angst. And yet as the performance continued it was impossible not to be drawn into the ups and downs of family life leaving many in the audience alternating between helpless laughter and real tears.
Firth’s previous works include the hugely popular Our House and Calendar Girls. This latest offering is a Sondheimesque exploration into the space between people who love each other but who, due to the ravages everyday life and the eroding passage of time, struggle to show it.
It is also very funny.
Thirteen year-old Nicky leads proceedings, taking her family on a disastrous camping trip after winning a competition for a free holiday anywhere in the word. She rejects the lure of the exotic in return for returning her parents to the storm-lashed site where their teenage love – both gauche and beautiful - was first declared and sealed in a biscuit box before being buried under a tree.
Coming along for the ride is lovelorn Emo, brother Matt, increasingly forgetful grandmother May (played by theatrical grand dame Sian Phillips) and aunty Sian who delivers much of the comic muscle to proceedings.
This is an unashamedly feelgood and sentimental production which flicks all the right switches. The entire cast is spectacularly good bringing actorly gravity to their parts whilst skilfully squeezing the many laughs out of the libretto. True there are no real show stoppers but it would defy nature not to be humming the leitmotif for several days afterwards.
There may well be a demographic – teenage to pre-parenthood, perhaps- for whom the obvious charms of this musical might fail. For the rest of us it just left the overwhelming urge to go home and give the kids a hug.
THE TELEGRAPH – DOMINIC CAVENDISH
Tim Firth is a man who has reached millions, and no doubt made a fortune, with a series of populist hits one might cruelly characterise as artistic near-misses. Whether it’s Sign of the Times, Neville’s Island or that runaway global smash Calendar Girls, much on his CV displays the fabled “common touch” but it’s hardly the stuff of startling originality.
Now, though, he has penned a musical that doesn’t just make you sit up and listen, it also forces you to appreciate his talents, and fascination with everyman topics, with fresh eyes.
Drably called This Is My Family, it might be better served by “Our House”, had that title not already been taken by the Madness song and spin-off musical which Firth ingeniously stitched together a decade ago. Though far smaller in scale, the piece proves a thrilling advance on that previous outing, beautifully interweaving as it does dialogue with song so that you can hardly see the joins, even as your attention is riveted to the nuts and bolts of ordinary life.
Richard Kent’s set – a full wooden cross-section of a typical home interior – is the perfect backdrop for Firth’s witty dissection of an archetypal family unit facing the double trouble of parental mid-life crises and the growing pains of adolescence.
At first, we seem to be on worryingly bland terrain as Evelyn Hoskins’ chirpy daughter-of-the-house Nicky introduces to us to the instantly familiar figures of her drudgery-bound mum Yvonne (Clare Burt), her bad-with-his-hands dad Steve (Bill Champion), her grouchy-gothy teenage brother Matt (Terence Keeley) and her increasingly dotty and demented grandmother (Sian Phillips). A larger-than-life, still-raunchy aunt called Sian (Rachel Lumberg) is in the mix too. No plot-development looms besides a family holiday, won in a competition, to a place of Nicky’s choosing, with all the ghastliness and friction that usually entails.
Very swiftly, though, the evening’s verve, good humour and poignant veracity takes hold. The show is at once simple and sophisticated, catchy and clever. Director Daniel Evans, alert to every nuance, brings out the Sondheim-esque flavours of the score and the distinct personalities of each of the players. If the characters are borderline clichés, they’re aware they’ve become so and are fighting back against the loss of identity, love and youthful hope.
As fire-lanterns ascend the theatre on a closing note of hard-won optimism, new horizons beckon for the family and great promise does too for Firth’s middle years.
THE GUARDIAN – MICHAEL BILLINGTON
Tim Firth's first play, 1992's Neville's Island, showed four men stranded in the Lake District during a disastrous team-building exercise. This new musical comedy, for which Firth is composer, lyricist and author, is based on a similar premise: a family seeking to overcome its fractiousness during a camping holiday. But, this being a musical, there is a foreknowledge, everything will work out happily – as indeed it does in this wittily engaging show.
Firth filters the action through the eyes of 13-year-old Nicky, who wins a holiday competition by pretending to have an ideal family. In reality, her dad, Steve, is a home handyman who emotionally neglects his wife, Yvonne. Meanwhile Nicky's brother, Matt, is so deeply hooked on his girlfriend he barely deigns to speak to anyone else. On top of that, Steve's elderly mum, the devout May, comes to stay after nearly burning herself to death.
Mike Leigh's Nuts in May depicted the hazards of life under canvas better than anyone before or since; and, having shown a family on the verge of falling apart, Firth puts it together again a bit too easily. But, in its seamless mixture of song and speech, the show is formally inventive, and Firth creates genuinely funny characters without patronising them. Best of all is the venerable May, played by the peerless Siân Phillips, who combines religious conviction with erotic memories. Rachel Lumberg, as Yvonne's louche sister, also adds to the show's gaiety with her anatomical exploration of the idea that "sex is like a safari park".
Daniel Evans's production skilfully allows the songs to seem part of an extended conversation, and there is good work from Bill Champion and Clare Burt, who lend Steve and Yvonne the frayed quality of a long-married couple, as well as from Evelyn Hoskins's Nicky and Terence Keeley as her gothic sibling. A feelgood show that captures the tensions in the nuclear family without exploding the concept, I suspect Firth's likable musical will have a long life.
Scripts, CDs and DVDs of Tim Firth's work are available.