This Is My Family review – terrifically funny musical is a triumph

Minerva, Chichester
James Nesbitt and Sheila Hancock star in Tim Firth’s touching comedy about a dysfunctional group of relatives

Musicals head inexorably towards big ensemble numbers, a convention underlining the genre’s default moral of redemptive togetherness. So This Is My Family is striking in having no choral singing at all. Even when several of the six characters sing together, they hold their own lines contrapuntally. This device sonically illustrates the show’s subject of family life, a dynamic in which the best hope of harmony is that stubborn solos occasionally coincide.

Daughter Nicky, 13, wins a children’s competition for an essay about relatives. But the account that touches the judges glosses over the communication gulf between mum and dad, gran’s developing dementia, big brother’s goth-related catatonia, and auntie’s heat-seeking libido. The prize is a family holiday anywhere, but the location chosen seeds a surprising change of set and mood in the second act.

Writer Tim Firth and director Daniel Evans have substantially revived a work they premiered at Sheffield in 2013. The score and all sung and spoken words are by Firth alone, a multitasking very rare in musical theatre, except for Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, with which This Is My Family has engaging similarities in its thrifty use of reprise and smooth movement between jokes and emotion.

Sheila Hancock and Kirsty MacLaren in This is My Family
Sheila Hancock and Kirsty MacLaren in This Is My Family. Photograph: Johan Persson

Many of the songs are wry recitative or dialogue lightly rested on a string line, but Firth can also write big comic compositions, including one in which mum’s libidinous sister compares the stages of a long sexual relationship to the increasing mess and dents in a car bought smart and new. Sheila Hancock’s church-going gran is given a signature hymn, learned in childhood, the uncertainty of its lyrics serving as an indicator of the progress of senility.

As might be expected from a writer whose CV includes comedies as strong as Calendar Girls (film, play and musical versions) and Neville’s Island (with which This Is My Family shares an interest in the middle-class desire to get back to nature), Firth also delivers multiple terrific spoken gags and unexpected punchlines.

This Is My Family at Minerva theatre
Richard Kent’s two-faced set revolves between twee suburbia and muddy rurality. Photograph: Johan Persson

The starriness of the casting suggests London West End ambitions that deserve to be fulfilled. James Nesbitt, plausibly adapting his native Northern Irish tones to Firth’s northern English register, is moving and game (scenes on rollerblades and in swimming trunks) as a father who fears he has failed professionally and personally. Hancock wrenchingly sings and speaks a part demanding the hard technical task of depicting scattiness with precision. Kirsty MacLaren combines sharpness and sweetness as Nicky, a sort of Adrienne Mole narrator.

Clare Burt ruefully portrays the fight between disappointment and loyalty in a wife and mother who wants to keep her family together; Rachel Lumberg is perkily earthy as the man-mad aunt, with Scott Folan very funnily embodying the sudden postural, vocal, and fashion transformations of an insecure student.

The show’s theme of alternate possibilities is architecturally suggested by Richard Kent’s two-faced set, revolving between twee suburbia and muddy rurality. Director Evans, a considerable singer and actor himself, achieves unusually fluid transitions between dialogue and music. Funny, touching, but also alert to the darker uncertainties of life, This Is My Family should certainly have further generations.

Contributor

Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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