Tim Firth (far left) and Daniel Evans (far right) in rehearsals
The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, has a great reputation for large-scale productions of musicals, but This is My Family (which opens later this month) is certainly not one of them. Director Daniel Evans emphasises the importance of the intimate production style in the Studio and writer/composer Tim Firth (of Calendar Girls fame) regards keeping the characters and plot within fairly strict limits as essential to its success:
"It's a play about a family. The main character is a 13-year-old girl and her competition entry starts the whole story off. I sort of fell in love with her because she had a certain spirit about her and I thought, ‘The whole story is going to be told by this girl.' We see the family from her perspective and this meant the whole massive scale that can overwhelm you when you're writing a musical just disappears because we can only see what she sees. Gradually this story defined its own rules because, once I had the family, as soon as I tried to introduce a character outside the family, it all took a nose-dive. There could only ever be six characters, the family, in this play."
The girl's competition-winning entry about her family tells of her idealised family, not the squabbling one she sees every day, and the prize is a dream holiday for her, her truculent 17-year-old brother, mother, father, aunt and grandmother. So the focus is simply on a family taking a holiday together: as Tim says, you can expand the orchestra if you like (it's a five-piece band at Sheffield), but don't go beyond those six characters.
The genesis of This is My Family comes from Tim's plan to write a comedy about a disastrous camping holiday, but it seems it took on a life of its own:
"In the first scene I wrote the character came on stage and she sort of sang the opening lines and I wasn't expecting that. It seemed natural for her to sing this line, so I thought, ‘I'll just go with it.' The story seemed to tell itself most naturally through songs.
"I wrote the first act, then borrowed the rehearsal room where we were rehearsing the Calendar Girls tour and organised a little workshop myself about three years ago. Then I came up here and sat with Daniel on the stage of the Lyceum, just me and him and a bottle of water and a piano. I didn't tell him anything about the story, just sang all six parts to him in that huge empty theatre. And he said he'd like to hear the second act and I came back three or months later and did the same thing again."
Or, as Daniel Evans puts it, "Within minutes I knew we had to do it. It's a potent combination of beautiful melodies, hilarious dialogue and incredibly warm subject matter presented with great affection and humour. It's the sort of family we all recognise. It's not an unhappy family – there's love there – but they've just lost their way and there's this 13-year-old girl who's trying desperately to hold it all together."
Daniel's production configures the Studio with a thrust stage ("like a mini-Crucible") and, remarkably, features three of the actors who first workshopped the play with Tim Firth three years ago: Bill Champion as dad, Rachel Lumberg as his over-loud sister-in-law and Sian Phillips as grandma, described in some publicity as "loveable". As for the music, both Daniel and Tim stress the folk elements in it, nothing so complex as to obscure the fast-moving comedy of the text – and certainly no reliance on grandiose musical settings or blockbuster effects. As Tim says:
"The musicals I admire most are those which are robust enough to need nothing but the characters and the story and the songs."
This is My Family runs in the Crucible Studio from 20 June to 20 July 2013