Musical take on meaning of modern family

Evelyn Hoskins and Rachel Lumberg in This Is My Family and below, Tim Firth during rehearsals.
Evelyn Hoskins and Rachel Lumberg in This Is My Family and below, Tim Firth during rehearsals.
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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.”

This is My Family, Sheffield Studio, June 19-July 20. 0114 249 6000.

Tim Firth – A life in writing

Tim Firth was born in 1964 and has lived all his life in the North West of England.

He studied English at Cambridge where he met aspiring young director Sam Mendes who directed all Firth’s plays at Cambridge. Firth also wrote for the Footlights revue team.

After graduating, he was invited to meet Alan Ayckbourn in Scarborough. Ayckbourn commissioned a one-act play for the studio at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Firth’s first full-length play Neville’s Island was also staged in Scarborough.His new musical This is My Family has been described by Daniel Evans as “a refreshingly honest and funny portrayal of modern family life”.