Minerva Theatre, Chichester – until 15 June 2019
This is gorgeous. Funny, truthful, wise, and bravely original in form. Anyone with a a family – past, present, remembered, or merely observed in cautious auntly incredulity – should see Tim Firth’s musical. Or, more accurately, musical play: it has no traditional blockbusting numbers and no choruses – though sometimes the characters sing across each other in their own preoccupations. The junctions between singing and speech in fact are so natural that you hardly notice them and its lovely insouciance makes you feel as if breaking into song is the obvious extension of emphasis: a heightening of what needs to be said or thought in the frenetic pace of ordinary life.
It is operatic yet as natural as birdsong; barkingly funny at times, but never oversignalling its jokes, poignant but never mawkish. Emotions or absurdities just bubble up in exasperations all families feel. It’s a gem. Daniel Evans opened it at the Crucible in June 2013, and I cooed with delight then (“enchanting, sweet as a nut, glorying in grumpy family love”.) Now leading Chichester, he brings it back con amore, revised and musically tweaked. But the enchantment lives on: just go!
The story is slight: Nicky – Kirsty MacLaren convincingly and marvellously playing a bright, observant 13 – has won a competition for an essay on “My Family”. There’s her sullen 17-year-old brother Matt, Grandma May who sings hymns but listens to the cricket during the sermon, her parents Steve and Yvonne, whose tale of their first romantic meeting on a campsite she cherishes. Oh, and auntie Sian whose romantic career is rather wilder. Firth’s script, sitcom-funny but raised to emotional truth by the music, beautifully evokes the parents’ midlife mutual exasperation .
James Nesbitt’s Steve with a mid-life bloke crisis is beyond priceless: rollerskates, free-running, learning Arabic to impress the Abu Dhabi owners of his company, and a running series of equally ill-executed and unnecessary DIY projects. A home-made hot tub in the rockery electrocutes a frog.
Yvonne (Clare Burt, subtle and funny and sad) is losing her grip on who she is, as the children spread their wings. Matt – at 17 “on life’s mezzanine”, responds to parental questions with a furious sea-lion bark and flap; he has gone Goth and done a pagan handfasting marriage ceremony with his girlfriend, who inevitably dumps him.
Auntie Sian careers on down the love-track, and her song “Sex is a safari park” ought to be top of the charts for years. Grandma May (Sheila Hancock, a marvel) is gradually fading mentally: losing the words of old hymns, feeling the mist of confusion rise, swirl, form into old memories, then clear. Throughout the play all the family relationships are spot-on, heartshakingly credible.
And the plot? Nicky’s prize is a holiday of her choice: as her understated worry about her parents’ separate fractiousness grows, she opts to return to the lakeside camp where they first met. So they all do. Richard Kent’s lovely cluttered dollshouse set does some revolving magic, the rain pelts down, the tent – well, we’ve all been there.
Everything resolves, but let’s not spoil it. The tune which Firth’s characters sing is all our songs; their tale evokes splendours and sorrows of every family on every street. The jokes work wonders. “Love is when you’ve sucked off all the chocolate and find that what you’re left with is the nut”. But so do the truths: “It isn’t the fault of the star that we’ve stopped seeing it”.
box office www.cft.org.uk to 15 June