Why this is the greatest show I have seen at Chichester Festival Theatre...

With all our beloved venues sadly shut, there’s surely no better time than now to wallow in the fabulous memories they have given us over the years.

By Phil Hewitt
Sunday, 7th June 2020, 8:10 am
James Nesbitt, Scott Folan, Kirsty MacLaren & Clare Burt in CFT's THIS IS MY FAMILY Photo Johan Persson
James Nesbitt, Scott Folan, Kirsty MacLaren & Clare Burt in CFT's THIS IS MY FAMILY Photo Johan Persson

That’s the great thing about theatre. Good theatre, at least. It stays with you.

If you had to choose the best shows you’ve ever seen at Chichester Festival Theatre, which would they be?

Mine would be Taking Sides, Collaboration and Arturo Ui. But that’s the problem. As soon as you commit yourself to an answer, images of a dozen other productions come crashing in.

And that’s what makes it so interesting… and even more interesting still when we turn the question on the people who welcome us to Chichester Festival Theatre, the people whose job it is to make our visit as enjoyable as possible.

So let’s take the plunge.

We have asked the CFT staff to select their favourite shows.

This week Lauren Grant, who’s Deputy Director of Learning, Education and Participation, tells us why her choice is 2019’s This Is My Family.

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The Greatest Show – This is My Family

Lauren Grant, Deputy Director of LEAP

Festival 2020 would have been my sixth season working at Chichester Festival Theatre. In that time I have been so lucky to experience a number of inspiring, thought-provoking, life- enhancing productions in our wonderful theatres; so when I was asked to pick my favourite, a few came to mind. One option was Flowers for Mrs Harris, which moved me to tears on three separate occasions, or the chilling and timely revival of Roy Williams’s Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads in the Spiegeltent. On the other hand, I also loved the promenade production of Grimm Tales, performed in the enchanting grounds of Cass Sculpture Park by the wonderful Chichester Festival Youth Theatre. All would have been worthy to reminisce about, but instead I’ve chosen a production which feels particularly relevant to me at this moment: a time when, for me, family feels more important than ever.

This Is My Family opened Festival 2019 and gave a heart-warming insight into the everyday drama of family life. Written by Tim Firth and directed by Daniel Evans, we start by meeting thirteen-year-old Nicky who takes on the role of semi-narrator. After entering and winning a competition where she depicts her family in a far rosier light than the reality, her prize is a free holiday anywhere in the world. She rejects the temptation of exotic shores, instead opting for the campsite where her parents first met, in the hope of smoothing out some of the cracks in her family’s relationships.

As an ensemble piece, I loved that each of the family members had their moment. Clare Burt was wonderful as harassed mum Yvonne, bearing the weight of the family much like my own wonderful mum does in ours. Rachel Lumberg was hilarious as Yvonne’s sister Sian and James Nesbitt was up for anything as dad Steve. We laughed with him in swimming trunks and on roller blades, but I was also moved by his relationship with his mother May, played by the beautifully understated Sheila Hancock, who we meet in the early stages of dementia. Kirsty MacLaren was wonderfully warm and full of optimism as Nicky, and Scott Folan, as her mumbling teenage brother, portrayed the familiar pains of first love with both humour and vulnerability.

The family members’ thoughts and feelings were expressed beautifully through song when words were too important to be spoken, and although lines often overlapped (a reminder of my own family where we all talk over each other), I enjoyed that this was a musical with no choral singing. Richard Kent’s design beautifully captured the organised chaos and clutter of family life, revolving to reveal a woodland as the backdrop for the second act and a particularly funny scene involving erecting a tent in a rainstorm.

What appealed most was the simplicity, the mundane but touching and truthful elements of family life. There were characters I could recognise, some from my own family, some from my husband’s and others from the families of some of my closest friends. A number of lines effected a turn to my husband and a knowing look, and the delicately balanced mix of jokes and emotion brought such warmth.

In writing about why I enjoyed This Is My Family so much I realise it’s because I left the Minerva thinking ‘this is also MY family’, my mind busy with memories. I recounted the time when my gran moved in with us for the summer and I shared bunkbeds with her while we decorated her new flat. I phoned my best friend and reminisced about a caravan holiday in the north of Scotland where it rained, all day, every day! I enjoyed This Is My Family because it was recognisable and familiar and because it made me think about some of the people I love the most.

I’ve lived away from ‘home’ for many years and have become used to not being able to see my family every day. They live 500 miles away, a journey that simply isn’t possible every other weekend and, as a result, the Covid-19 lockdown rules are probably easier for me than for some. It is difficult to think that it could still be many months before I'm able to jump in the car and make that long journey again but I know that I am in a lucky position to be able to speak to them on the phone or online whenever I want to; a privilege some people sadly don’t have. I am also in the lucky position of having another family – my CFT family – and I’m so looking forward to a time when we can all be together again to create more wonderful theatre.

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