The last time we saw Calendar Girls (the play), I didn’t like it much. I liked the film and the original stage production at Chichester a lot, but by the time it had toured and toured and toured it had got a bit tired. However, fresh as a daisy and brightly emotional comes a new work from the pen of Tim Firth, This Is My Family – a rather pedestrian title for an intricately woven little musical of a “typical” family – bonkers Grandma, well-meaning and inept dad, overworked mum, promiscuous auntie, Goth teenage son, cheeky teenage daughter. It’s full of charm, comic insights and affectionate characterisation.
The whole story is seen from the point of view of Nicky, the aforementioned cheeky daughter, who successfully enters a competition to win a family holiday anywhere in the world. Whilst everyone else finds it hard enough just to get through a normal day, Nicky imagines all sorts of holiday scenarios in every continent, but, being a typical 13 year old, ends up opting for the only place she can think of that the rest of the family will like – a place her parents used to take them when they were younger, and which she knew had a special meaning to them. However, when they get there it’s not quite as they remember it! It’s become a hideous campsite in a godforsaken corner of England where they “enjoy” typical English weather and arguments and bickerings ensue. But despite everything, the holiday brings the family together in a way that none of them could have foreseen. I won’t tell you how; suffice it to say that the second act is at times extremely moving and very tender – enough to bring a tiny tear to Mrs Chrisparkle’s eye.
It’s a very effective set; the Studio doesn’t have a huge acting space, but this tall, shallow backdrop against one wall depicts the many rooms of a busy cluttered house, enabling scenes to take place in different rooms whilst not encroaching on the main acting area. The small band led by Caroline Humphris whack out some engaging tunes and quite complex musical sequences too where all the cast sing some multipart harmonies immensely skilfully.
The strength of the show is in its structure. On the one hand, it’s instantly appealing as we all recognise the characters. Even if you don’t personally have one of those six types in your family (and I bet you do), you will still personally know someone closely who fills the bill. The underlying message of the show is that there is nothing new under the sun. As the holiday develops, we realise that Steve and Yvonne had precisely the same kind of ritualistic communion experience that they have scorned Matt for (a Druidic wedding to the unseen Rachel), and that May and her “Ralphie” also had some similar arrangement long in the past. Each generation, whether they realise it or not, becomes the blueprint for the next generation, and if the current family is a bunch of crazies, no doubt so were the forebears. When Matt decides to keep the letter Steve wrote to Yvonne as a teenager, you can see that the future generations are likely to continue that family tradition. It’s a real affirmation of love.
At the heart of the show is a great performance from Evelyn Hoskins as Nicky, a cheerful, precocious but never caricatured portrayal of a young teenage girl with lots to look forward to. She has a great stage presence, a charming voice and is, in the words of T S Eliot, “the still point in the turning world” (I don’t think I have yet recovered from seeing Cats last week). Alongside her is another excellent performance from Terence Keeley as her older brother Matt, who has the mumbling speech of a disrespectful teenager to a tee, is a frankly terrifying Goth, is very convincing in striding the gap between being a stupid boy and nearly a man; and who absolutely comes into his own at the end as he matures into a proper university student. He has a great singing voice, terrific comic timing and I think he could become A Name To Watch For.
Bill Champion plays Steve, the much criticised, helpful and wannabe practical dad who is never happier than when making things, despite a total lack of skill, and much to the dismay of his family. Their lives are littered with the evidence of his hopeless attempts – an old bath becomes a spa, night vision head torches are constructed out of old bike lamps; fortunately, Matt puts his foot down early enough to prevent Steve from destroying his new university rooms. It’s a great performance of humour tinged with some pathos. Clare Burt makes an excellent Yvonne, the mother torn between practicality and romantic ideals, and Rachel Lumberg, last seen here in the Full Monty, gives a brilliantly funny performance as Yvonne’s slightly more wayward sister with a new man for every occasion.
Last, and certainly not least, comes a superbly controlled performance from Sian Phillips as May, Steve’s mother, which shows a decline into dementia in a most affectionate and gentle way. Losses of memory, misunderstandings and the occasionally bizarre act are contrasted with some insightful speeches of great wit and understanding too. I’ve seen Sian Phillips in many productions over the years (going back to Pal Joey in 1980) and she still has a marvellous presence and gives a great performance. She hasn’t lost her singing voice either.
It’s a reflective, feel good show, which can make you both laugh and cry, and you certainly come away from the theatre feeling a little bit wiser about what makes us all tick. It really ought to have a life after this short Sheffield run!