When I arrived at Chichester Festival Theatre last night to see the first production of this year’s season I was uncharacteristically unprepared. I’m normally that person who meticulously researches every little detail of a show before seeing it but like the changing of a season or the realisation you’re no longer as fit (or young) as you used to be the date rather crept up on me.
To be honest I’m rather glad it did, one of the joys of discovering something new is the lack of expectation and this little gem from Calendar Girls/Neville’s Island writer Tim Firth blindsided me with it’s warmth and sense of fun, even when dealing with painful situations. It’s a musical, but it doesn’t feel like one, the songs serving the story rather than stopping it. Daniel Evans’ direction allows everything to flow seamlessly and the use of music, the witty set design and simplicity of the staging all give us the opportunity to see the characters fully form.
Nicky is 13 and enters a competition to win a holiday by writing bout her family, mum and dad, her older brother, gran and her aunt. When she wins she decides to light a spark by taking her parents back to the place where they first met. All the time they deal with the failing health of her grandmother May, the emotional outbursts of her brother Matt, a leather clad goth in the first flush of love and the perpetual excitement of her aunt Sian, freshly divorced and in a new relationship.
Relationships are the key here, Nicky is growing up and finding herself more distant from her brother, mum and day – Yvonne and Steve – struggle to communicate their feelings, Sian is trying to replace the comfort of a long term relationship with the excitement of a new partner and May, showing increasing signs of dementia, is frequently held prisoner by her own memories.
Sounds miserable, and there are more than a few moments that will have you welling up but this is a surprisingly joyous show about embracing what you have rather than regretting what could have been.
Kirsty MacLaren as Nicky is the heart of the piece, effortlessly embodying the precociousness of childhood with the growing understanding her family isn’t as perfect as she might once have believed. Her interactions with all the cast are perfectly nuanced, but none more so than with Sheila Hancock as May. Their relationship is genuinely touching and all too real. Hancock herself captures the struggles May is having incredibly well, from lucid moments of refusing her prescribed medicine “I was a nurse for 40 years, I know when people need those pills and when they don’t!” to her heartbreaking as she struggles to remember her favourite hymn and her wide eyed joy at returning memories of her long dead husband.
If Nicky is the heart of the piece then Clare Burt’s world-weary Yvonne is the soul. Constantly trying to keep her family moving in the same direction. As she tries to explain love to her son, or compares the comfort of her marriage to her sister’s excitement at her new sexual partner she, more than the bricks and mortar they live in embodies the sense of home. Rachel Lumberg’s Sian is the perfect foil, boisterous where Yvonne is weary, brash when she is quiet, their bond is really rather lovely to see!
James Nesbitt seems to relish his role as Steve, the patriarch of the family who is coming to terms with his age by taking up and discarding countless hobbies. He struggles to communicate with his son (Scott Folan making the most of Matt’s outlandish declarations of love for his new girlfriend), his wife and everyone around him until the holiday allows him the chance to open up by returning to his first moments with Yvonne.
I won’t spoil the direction the piece heads but there’s something satisfying and tangible about everything you will see over the couple of hours of this play.
There will be bigger, bolder and more dramatic productions throughout the season this year, but this family will be the ones you want to climb on stage and spend time with!
Until 15 June. See cft.org.uk for more details or to book tickets.