Playwright and composer Tim Firth has emerged as inheritor of a British musical tradition laid down by Lionel Bart and Willy Russell. Director Daniel Evans meanwhile, is being seriously talked about as the next artistic director of the National Theatre.
The prospect of these two big names producing a new musical in the intimate confines of the Crucible Studio was an exciting one even if the subject matter – an unsuccessful family holiday - seemed a little lacking in grandeur.
At times, during the first act it did seem a bit of a high wire endeavour trying to wring the necessary drama out of the mundane domesticity of mid-life crisis and teenage angst. And yet as the performance continued it was impossible not to be drawn into the ups and downs of family life leaving many in the audience alternating between helpless laughter and real tears.
Firth’s previous works include the hugely popular Our House and Calendar Girls. This latest offering is a Sondheimesque exploration into the space between people who love each other but who, due to the ravages everyday life and the eroding passage of time, struggle to show it.
It is also very funny.
Thirteen year-old Nicky leads proceedings, taking her family on a disastrous camping trip after winning a competition for a free holiday anywhere in the word. She rejects the lure of the exotic in return for returning her parents to the storm-lashed site where their teenage love – both gauche and beautiful - was first declared and sealed in a biscuit box before being buried under a tree.
Coming along for the ride is lovelorn Emo, brother Matt, increasingly forgetful grandmother May (played by theatrical grand dame Sian Phillips) and aunty Sian who delivers much of the comic muscle to proceedings.
This is an unashamedly feelgood and sentimental production which flicks all the right switches. The entire cast is spectacularly good bringing actorly gravity to their parts whilst skilfully squeezing the many laughs out of the libretto. True there are no real show stoppers but it would defy nature not to be humming the leitmotif for several days afterwards.
There may well be a demographic – teenage to pre-parenthood, perhaps- for whom the obvious charms of this musical might fail. For the rest of us it just left the overwhelming urge to go home and give the kids a hug.
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