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Review: This is My Family (Chichester Festival Theatre)

Tim Firth's musical is revived in the Minerva Theatre starring Sheila Hancock and James Nesbitt

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Sheila Hancock and Kirsty MacLaren in This is My Family
© Johan Persson

Tim Firth's comic musical about a family going on holiday first saw the light of day in Sheffield in 2013, directed by Daniel Evans. People liked it – it won awards as the best new musical and went on tour – and then it vanished.

But with attractive and appropriate loyalty Evans, now artistic director of the Chichester Festival Theatre has revived it in his smaller Minerva Theatre at Chichester, with some of the same cast (Clare Burt and Rachel Lumberg as contrasting but affectionate sisters) and the addition of James Nesbitt, Sheila Hancock, Kirsty MacLaren and Scott Folan as the rest of the clan. It is something approaching a triumph.

Firth, of course, has got form both as a writer of musicals (Calendar Girls, The Band) and of comedy (Neville's Island). Both flow together here in an apparently simple but surprisingly touching and truthful show, which takes a few melodies and winds them through the action in a witty portrayal of an ordinary family facing an ordinary mid-life, empty nest crisis and embarking on a disastrous camping trip.

The daughter Nicky (MacLaren, familiar from Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour and utterly engaging) is our guide; she wins a competition for her description of her family in which their rough edges are smoothed out by love, and decides to heal the breaches that are opening between them by taking them back to their past on holiday.

Those rifts are instantly recognisable to anyone who has grown up in a family. Father Steve (Nesbitt in fine comic form) tries to recapture his lost youth by rollerblading at 50, and mourns the fact that he has ended up working in a job identical to the one carried out at an office in Croydon. Mum Yvonne despairs of his cack-handed DIY – "Don't marry a man who builds you a bath in his rockery" she implores her daughter – and has fallen into a routine of practicalities which disguise her fears about her family leaving her.

Burt invests even a line about a broadband bill with a kind of tender regret – and Lumberg as her rambunctious sister has the song of the night, in her wonderful number that compares sex with a new man to driving a new car. Meanwhile Matt (Folan, all confusion and kindess) is going through his goth phase, and suffering the pains of first love, bellowing poems to his ex-girlfriend into his mobile, and grandma May, a religious woman with a fondness for bleach, is slipping into dementia.

What makes these archetypes so engaging is partly the razor sharpness of Firth's script and lyrics, which cleverly undercut moments of sentiment, and partly the even-handedness of the portrayals. No one is patronised here. Nesbitt may have a moment in which he translates Matt's teenage mumbles into English, but Matt has his turn too when he describes his father's midlife crisis.

The show is full of love and kindness. Nowhere is this truer than in Hancock's luminous playing of May's stumble into forgetfulness and loss. Singing the words of a hymn that resonate through the action, she catches a mix of terror, anger and reverie that roots the production in such real emotion that you find yourself crying even while you laugh at the mayhem.

It's a delicate balance and Evans' direction holds it perfectly while Richard Kent's design, rotating to represent both a colourful, cluttered family home and a wild wood, provides a magnificent setting for a gentle show that lingers in the heart.