For his latest production at Sheffield Theatres, Artistic Director Daniel Evans has teamed up with Tim Firth to create that rarest of beasts, a brand new British musical comedy. There’s an element of risk involved in this. Recently, despite opening to reasonably strong reviews, Elliot Davis and James Bourne’s Loserville limped to a close two months earlier than scheduled, But Firth’s baby (unusually, he’s written both the book and the music and lyrics) generates so much feel-good warmth, it’s difficult not to fall a little in love with it.
Thirteen year old Nicky wins a holiday competition by pretending to have the ideal family. But while hers are not exactly a dysfunctional brood, they aren’t short of flaws: there’s a father who spends too much money and time on DIY, a mother who feels under-appreciated, a larger-than-life auntie, an older brother too wrapped up in his first love to interact with his sister and a grandmother showing the early signs of Alzheimer’s. In other words, they’re normal. All the characters are easy to identify with and, thanks to a terrific cast, they’re near impossible not to root for.
Evelyn Hoskins plays teenage Nicky so convincingly that it comes as quite a shock to realise that she’s actually 25 years old, so perfectly does she captures the mannerisms and attitude of a thirteen girl. Sian Phillips is gives a subtle, poignant performance as the grandmother struggling with memory loss – and newcomer Terence Keeley belts out his numbers with such passion it’s a bit of a shame we don’t get to hear more of him.
Firth’s songs are witty, catchy and often very funny, and backed up by an excellent band who hardly stop playing for the entirety of the two hour running time. Although there’s no big showstopping number, the central, often reprised, theme lodges itself in your memory. The lyrics are at times reminiscent of Victoria Wood, especially during Rachel Lumberg’s standout performance of ‘Safari Sex,’ and although the humour sometimes leans towards the risque (including one hilarious line from Phillips which is far too good to spoil here), it’s never crude. Firth also ensures that the more conversational songs are easily streamed into the dialogue, so that it almost feels natural to have the characters burst into song – a technique that’s served Stephen Sondheim so well over the years.
Evans keeps things moving along and brings all his customary expertise and flair to the musical numbers. Although this is a much more intimate production than My Fair Lady, Evans is an excellent director of actors and Evelyn Hoskins is as captivating here as Carly Bawden was as Eliza Doolittle.
As is usually the case with productions in the Studio, Richard Kent’s ingenious set design is a real highlight, festooned with staircases and ladders; it’s interesting to muse on how any future productions on a larger scale could build on this. Firth’s musical, while unashamedly feel-good and family-friendly, never lapses into sentimentality, and at the end you might find you appreciate your own family, flaws and all, even more than usual.