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Keeping it in the family: Calendar Girls author brings his new show to Ipswich

PUBLISHED: 17:51 27 October 2014 | UPDATED: 17:51 27 October 2014

playwright and producer

playwright and producer

Archant

Playwright Tim Firth is very much an observer of our times. Andrew Clarke caught up with him as he oversees rehearsals for his first musical, which he promises is going to be a little bit different

Tim Firth, Evelyn Hoskins, Lynsey Fraser, Caroline Humphris, Rachel Lumberg, Toby Higgins and Daniel Evans in rehearsal for This is My Family.Tim Firth, Evelyn Hoskins, Lynsey Fraser, Caroline Humphris, Rachel Lumberg, Toby Higgins and Daniel Evans in rehearsal for This is My Family.

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 piece of work, This Is My Family, is currently in rehearsal at the Sheffield Crucible theatre and comes to Suffolk in November as part of a select tour.

An earlier studio version of the >>

Sheffield Theatres production of
THIS IS MY FAMILY
by Tim Firth
directed by Daniel EvansSheffield Theatres production of THIS IS MY FAMILY by Tim Firth directed by Daniel Evans

>> musical play was the Crucible’s fastest selling show of all time, which is why Tim and director Daniel Evans have set about turning it into a full-sized show.

Although, it’s billed as a musical, the show is not presented in your typical dialogue-song-dialogue-dance routine format. Instead, it’s more like a musical tapestry with dialogue and lyrics weaving their way through the story and a musical underscore providing the pattern.

It’s also a very active show. At a preview of the opening scene in the rehearsal room the cast was continually on the move in a carefully choreographed whirl of activity as they addressed the audience and interacted with one another.

This Is My Family is the story of an ordinary middle-class family who find themselves trying to make the best of a spectacularly disastrous family camping holiday. The trip is supposed to be the holiday of their dreams after Nicky, their perceptively eloquent teenage daughter, won an essay writing competition. But nothing is going according to plan.

The success of the studio production was a huge shot in the arm for Tim as this is the first show for which he has also written all the music. He’s proud that it works as a musical with a fully-developed play woven into the very fabric of its structure.

“I’ve wanted to write a proper musical for ages. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with musicals. I think that they can be the best and worst that theatre can be. When they work they are 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.”

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 the music is incorporated in that, 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 – things like Blood Brothers and Stephen Sondheim’s Company – don’t have that distinction between dialogue and songs. One blends into the other.”

During the writing of 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 big note I had to myself was that none of the characters become poets when they sing. The songs are very simple. No-one becomes Freddie Mercury or Barbra Streisand. There’s no grandstanding. The songs are delivered in a very truthful way otherwise the show doesn’t work.”

During the last tour of Calendar Girls, Tim used cast members to rehearse scenes during the day, so by the time the cast were ready to start rehearsing in Sheffield, the script was in pretty good shape.

“By the time rehearsals started, most of the hard work was done. All we have had to do is a little tweaking here and there. But all the serious business about how the scenes flow and how the dialogue and the songs work was ironed out on that Calendar Girls tour.”

He says very little has been changed from the studio production. One song has been replaced, the production has been made bigger, the show has been choreographed much more precisely and the comedy moments are much more pointed as a result of lessons learned from the studio version.

“In a bizarre way I didn’t feel nervous about this 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.

“I’m thrilled with it. I hope everyone will see a little bit of themselves in it. I hope it is truthful – and funny.”

This Is My Family by Tim Firth is at the New Wolsey Theatre from November 11-15.

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