This Is My Family
Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield
18 October 2014
New musicals always get the hardest births. The creatives have their idea but, almost always, in order to get their musical baby on stage and on view, have to compromise that idea because a Producer “knows what is best” or wants a particular person in a particular role or won’t/can’t afford a particular orchestration or demands “better” tunes, bigger show-stopping numbers or smaller/bigger choruses (often, these days, with at least one opportunity for a state of considerable undress). It can be a frustrating and heart-breaking process, especially when a Producer then blames the creatives, the show and the form itself when a new musical does not work when, in truth, the production was the problem.
All of which makes Daniel Evans’ decision to back Tim Firth’s new Musical Comedy, This Is My Family, for which Firth wrote book, score and lyrics, now on a UK tour after a short revival at the Lyceum, all the more laudable. The show premiered at the Crucible Sheffield last year and was very successful. Some of the cast has changed since then, but in most other ways this current production is much the same as that original production.
There are no flashy, glitzy sets; no chorus at all, dressed or undressed; no big orchestra; no big dance numbers; no 11 o’clock show-stopper. A cast of six, a small band, a small, funny, gentle story and a couple of moments of theatrical genius – these are the key ingredients here.
And the show is quite lovely and pretty much every way. There is a lot to like, enjoy and, even, think about.
The story is simple. Mum and Dad were childhood sweethearts who married and like being married. They have two children, the eldest a boy, going through his pagan/gothic phase prior to higher education, rebellious and eternally grumpy, and their youngest, a girl, the show’s star, a pretty, clever writer who wins a prize and can take her family anywhere she wants.
Completing the inner family circle are an Aunt, Mum’s sister, a woman who lives life and loves men with a ferocity and hunger and joy barely imaginable and Nan, Dad’s mother, who is slowly slipping away into a dimension of memories.
The action is propelled by romance and notions of romance within the all-consuming arc of families, what they are, how they function and what they mean. The ground might be well trodden, but it has a kindness and a joyful spirit here which is infectious.
The second Act works better than the first, which seems a trifle too piecemeal. Pace is no substitute for plot.
In the second Act, however, there are two quite remarkable moments of theatrical magic, both of which involve May, the Nan. Like all families, this one has feasted on the tale of the teenage meeting and mating of Mum and Dad – every bit of the tale is known by all, or so it seems. But, here, in the best scene of the show, May, partly because of her dream dimensions, tells a secret which both changes and enriches an old family tale. It is wonderful to see unfold.
The second trick is simplicity itself – and genius. It is a moment of redemption for the son, of unsurpassing joy for Nan – and perfect for everyone else in the family. An expression of love and, possibly more importantly, romance – that binds and marks this little group as related, united – family. As a present for May, the son launches paper lanterns, fuelled by candles, into the sky and they float, quite magically, up and through the auditorium of the Lyceum. Glorious.
Having one person responsible for all the writing responsibilities of the piece is a big ask and while Firth does good work, this is not a score that will ever win a Tony Award and the book is not as tight or as languid as it might be in various places. The lyrics come off best; they are excellent.
The music is likeable enough, but it is pastiche in every way. Key tunes are similar to hit songs from Beauty and the Beast and Billy Elliot, which serves to assist in making them feel comfortable and familiar, but there is no sense of an overall style for this score.
The casting does not assist the score in some respects. Neither Mum (Clare Burt) nor Dad (Bill Champion) can sing the material with the kind of easy musicality that would ensure the melodies are heard in their intended glory. Burt is better in the acting stakes than Champion, but they both get away with it, and there is a refreshing, earthy, self-effacing quality to the depiction of their marriage which is very effective.
Marjorie Yates is exquisite as May, the Grandmother almost lost to dementia. It is a subtle and entirely unsentimental performance which packs quite an emotional punch. The second Act sees Yates take centre stage, an opportunity she embraces with relish and which pays off in every way, if you don’t shed a tear during her big moment, you need clinical assistance. The presence of her character raises difficult, important themes and gives the whole piece a sense of immediacy and substance.
As the youngsters at the centre of everything, Evans has hit gold: both Terence Keeley as Matt and Evelyn Hoskins as Nicky are excellent, in the acting and singing stakes. There is a freshness, a sincerity, an exasperation that is perfectly pitched for both brother and sister. The journey of Matt is more obviously charted in the narrative and Keeley pulls off the transition perfectly; but Nicky also undergoes change, which is more subtle even though she is front and centre throughout the action. Hoskins manages her transition exceptionally well; for those who have children, there is a very clear, and startling, “my little girl has grown up” moment which will warm the cockles of all but the hardest of hearts.
Rachel Lumberg is perfect as the adoring and adorable Aunt who hands out sex advice, rides a motorbike and changes male partners like mothballs. Great voice and great characterisation. All fun.
Daniel Evans understands musicals and has directed some excellent revivals. His work here is assured and informed, deft and insightful. He does much to obscure the inherent problems of script, score and some cast.
Richard Kent’s design is cute and appropriate for the cute style of the writing, music and direction. It’s best feature is the way it serves the dual purpose of representing present and past and David Plater’s excellent lighting heightens that effect.
There is, however, something seriously wrong with the sound balance and Nick Greenhill needs to sort this before the tour commences. There is just too much bass in the sound, often at the cost of diction. It ought be easily fixed.
This Is My Family is unlikely to win a Tony award for Best New Musical, but it is an engaging and very happy musical theatre experience. It’s new, British theatre writing, experimental and interesting. Well worth a few hours of anyone’s time.