Tim Firth’s This Is My Family musical holds a up a mirror to its audience
- Credit: Archant
Writer Tim Firth has a knack of observing people, capturing the way we live our lives and, having laced those observations with just the right amount of truthful humour, transforms the mundane into a telling piece of comedy.
He’s done it time and again with such contemporary masterpieces as Calendar Girls, Neville’s Island, Kinky Boots and the Madness musical Our House.
His latest work This Is My Family opens at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich next week. An earlier studio version of the musical play was staged at The Sheffield Crucible last year and was their fastest selling show of all time. This is why Tim and director Daniel Evans have set about turning the small studio production into a full-sized show.
Although billed as a musical, it’s not presented in your typical dialogue-song-dialogue-dance routine format. It’s more like a musical tapestry with dialogue and lyrics weaved through a musical underscore.
It’s also a very active show. I was given a preview of the opening scene which had the cast continually on the move in a carefully choreographed whirl of activity as they address the audience and inter-act together.
This Is My Family is the story of an ordinary middle-class family who find themselves trying to make the best of a disastrous family camping holiday. The trip is supposed to be the holiday of their dreams after Nikki, their eloquent teenage daughter, won an essay writing competition, but nothing is going according to plan.
The success of the studio production was a huge boost for Tim because it is the first show he has also written all the music for. He’s quite proud that it works as a musical with a fully-developed play woven underneath.
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“I’ve wanted to write a proper musical for ages. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with musicals. I think they can be the best and worst that theatre can be. When they work, they’re spectacular and when they’re bad, I can’t think of a worse place to be.
“As a kid I loved writing songs and I listened to an awful lot of musicals and that’s what inspired me to go on a writing course with Willy Russell, thinking we’d be writing musicals and, of course, we didn’t and he inspired me to write plays but now the whole thing has come full circle.
“I owe Willy a huge debt. He forced me to record an album with him of our own songs and if we hadn’t done that I don’t think I would have written this. Doing something like that forces you to finish things – to use that part of your brain to polish something and get it right. I write songs all the time but if that’s not what you do then you never use them and then they just stay on the shelf.”
He said that the genesis of This Is My Family is to be found in the months which followed the opening of Our House. “I had such fun writing Our House – which was a very different way of working for me. I think that the experimental way that the music is incorporated gave me the courage to do this. What I hate about musicals is when you are sitting in a scene and you can hear the next song rumbling in the wings. The musicals I love most – like Blood Brothers and Stephen Sondheim’s Company – don’t have that distinction between dialogue and songs. One blends into the other.
“Both Our House and Blood Brothers are like full-blooded plays with a strong meaty narrative and a soundtrack which informs the inner life of the characters. They are not an excuse for a series of songs strung together. That, of course, would have been a real problem for Our House which were made up of Madness songs that were all ready in existence.”
During the writing process for This Is My Family one of the questions he kept asking himself was: “Why are these characters doing this? If I could answer that then I had a musical. If I couldn’t answer that then the whole thing would start to wobble and I would have to rewrite it.
“The point of a good musical is that they sing when they can’t say something. For example, they would never sing: ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ I found when I was writing this, if I tried to do that, the characters would turn round on the page and say to me: ‘What the hell do you think you are doing?’ I found that the characters instinctively knew when they would sing and when they wouldn’t. So I just listened to them. There is always a reason for them to sing. Usually it is developing themes, internal dialogue, and if there isn’t a reason then it’s immediately obvious and the whole situation comes across as incredibly phoney.
“The big note I had to myself was that none of the characters become poets when they sing. They sing in their own voices they didn’t suddenly become Freddie Mercury with this amazing, big voice and performance persona. I wanted to make sure that they didn’t suddenly gain an eloquence or a personality that they didn’t have elsewhere in the play.”
Although it was the first musical play where he had supplied all the dialogue, music and lyrics, it wasn’t as daunting as he expected.
“In a bizarre way I didn’t feel nervous because it didn’t set out to be as big a show as it has become. It could have ended up as a sketch. I just wanted to write something about a family going on a disastrous holiday and this is the result.
“At the start I didn’t really know what was going to happen to that family. All I had was a girl called Nikki walking out on stage and saying: ‘This is my family.’ I could see her entering a writing competition and I could hear the song so I thought I will go with it.
“It’s like when the parents are talking to their son about falling in love at 16 and why it won’t necessarily be the only love he will have in his life. But, when they start this joint lecture then there was immediately another tune in the room, another song, and it was as if it was always there just waiting to be discovered. To be honest the whole thing sort of happened accidentally. I never set out to make anything as grandiose as a musical.”
One of the joys of the show was that none of the songs were hugely complicated. “They are simple songs but the way they are used is slightly more complex because they are inextricable from the narrative.”
The most important element was to be truthful and reflect a family people would recognise, he said.
“What I wanted to create was a story about families. It also explores how some couples mistake familiarity for lots of love and then find that their relationship can be rekindled by rediscovering what brought them back together in the first place.
“This is what happens in the play. They go on this holiday together and something extraordinary happens which brings them genuinely back together.”
Tim is also thrilled by the fact that it was the audience which enabled his fledgling first musical to make that giant leap from a studio show to a main stage attraction.
“It was the audience in Sheffield last year that decided that this was the musical for them. It was just like a play. The publicity spread by word of mouth. They brought their kids and the grandparents came, so it really crossed the generations and that was because they all had a line in. They all saw themselves truthfully represented on stage. The follow spot operators told me that there were certain points in the show where teenage girls turned round to their fathers and appeared to be saying: ‘OK watch this, this is you.’ And there would be other moments where the father would be sitting there with tears streaming down his face.”
He looks forward to seeing people’s reactions to the play change as time passes. “It would be fascinating to see how the teenager who currently relates to the son will react in 30 years time when he sees the same play through the eyes of the father.
“In a way I have already experienced that with Neville’s Island. I wrote that as a 25 year old and I was writing about that far distant creature the 40 year old man. I have gone past that now and am looking back on it. It’s fascinating to look back from another standpoint. The whole point of this play, about this family and this disastrous camping trip, is that something wonderful happens in the second act when everyone goes back and remembers what it was like when they were 16. For me that was always at the heart of the show.”
Although it took more than two years to develop the show, there was no reason to change much to transfer to the main stage.
“One song has been replaced but it is essentially the same show. The production has been made bigger, the show has been choreographed more precisely and the comedy moments are more pointed but I’m thrilled with it. I hope everyone will see a little bit of themselves. I hope it is truthful – and funny.”
n This Is My Family by Tim Firth can be seen at The New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich from November 11-15.