A look ahead to Now is Good at Storyhouse, Chester
- Credit: Kat Hannon
The curtain is poised to rise on Tim Firth’s new musical comedy at Chester’s Storyhouse this month. Here the award-winning playwright explains what inspired him to write his latest musical
'To be truthful, I hate a huge number of musicals – lots of the music makes me want to run,' says Tim Firth, the dramatist, screenwriter and songwriter. The songs should take you to somewhere words can’t, yet so many are forced into musicals for the sake of it. Music should be like a magic carpet, taking you into the sky without you realising you were there. I love how music can tell a tale.'
Between his jaunts overseas and work trips to London, the playwright can usually be found on the fringes of Delamere Forest, living on a road his dad used to push him along in a pram. And it was his late father, a former headteacher and a watercolourist, whose character crept up unknowingly on Firth as he wrote Now is Good amid the solitary months of lockdown.
Starring Michele Dotrice (Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em; A Very English Scandal) and Jeff Rawle (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), the story follows builder Ray and his son, Neil, who embark on a very personal renovation project, unlocking a bank of memories before things take an extraordinary turn. It’s a tale about the greatest challenges currently facing humanity: how to help your children, where to hide your biscuits and how to fight loneliness.
'I didn’t think Now is Good was going to be about my dad – but suddenly the character Ray appeared and I heard my father in him,' explains Firth. 'I’m constantly surprised about how things turn out in my plays.
'When it’s time to write, I tend to think long and write fast. I plot and mull and rumble these ideas like marbles in my hand, figuring out the characters, loosely based on people I know or who I have met. I’ve learnt I have to start writing before I think about things too much. I write very quickly; I could write 15 pages in a day – then I’ll leave it and go back to it.'
What inspired him to write Now is Good? A few things he explains, though it wasn’t until he lost his father in 2018, a story began to unfold in his mind. 'Dad had this real quality where he could always see the good in people and would encourage others to see the beauty in themselves.
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'He would tell me that if someone wasn’t forthcoming or seemed different, I must put more effort in, and eventually I would be able to unlock something. He had a really special way of bringing people together – just in the way music can create an extraordinary space. And I started to wonder if there was a story there – for seizing the moment, for bringing people together. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s to deal with the now.'
Firth is also acutely aware of the joy, wit and emotion music can conjure: 'Years ago, when our children were young and at primary school, we realised there was no live singing. My wife Kate and I asked if we could bring in live singing and every Friday, we’d turn up and I’d play pop songs from ear.
'We even took the kids to retirement homes and witnessed the extraordinary effect of the kids and music. It was irreverent and loud in a place that was often hushed and flat and we saw how music broke the common language – how it could create a rainstorm in the desert.
'The staff were astounded how much the music charged the residents, and since I’ve discovered that music really can awaken memories – something that can be deeply moving for elderly people suffering from dementia. This has always stayed with me.'
A large portion of lockdown was spent tinkering away with thoughts about the insurmountable loneliness felt by some during the pandemic and the need to take risks to have fun, to seize the moment.
And Now is Good began to take shape. 'I’m thrilled the musical will appear at Storyhouse. The joy of hearing the reaction from your audience is incredible. In my case, people expect my musicals to have humour, to be honest and to be true. And I hope that all comes across.'
Firth has had a glittering career, studying at King’s College Cambridge where he set up a theatre company with Sam Mendes and wrote for the Footlights comedy team. And since, a roll-call of theatre and film credits including Calendar Girls, The Band and Kinky Boots. His greatest achievement?
'I’m incredibly proud of This is my Family. It was the first thing I’d written both words and music and to see it all come together was thrilling. I’ve also had some spectacular nights watching Calendar Girls in the theatre – hearing and seeing the audience react with rounds of applause… that sheer success is hard to beat.
'Things I’m writing next are what I get excited about, too, and I’ve got eight projects on the go at the moment – all music and all comedy.'
Soon he’ll be filming a new movie, Greatest Days – a musical comedy, set in the northwest, and Athens, with the music of Take That. He and fellow Cheshire-born musician, songwriter and Take That member Gary Barlow both grew up in Frodsham, have been friends for many years and have long collaborated on albums and musicals.
Somehow, despite his rocketing success and monumental ambition, Firth remains a gentle, level-headed bloke who just wants to make music, write plays and make people chuckle. 'Theatre is my first love for sure.
'There’s something thrilling about a play – it can be reborn and retold time and time again. Also, the audience has to invest the time and money to go to the theatre. They have to pull on their coat and head out into the evening. And when you get it right and stand at the back of the theatre to watch all these people there’s nothing like it.'
Now is Good is at Storyhouse, Chester, from Wednesday, May 11 to Saturday, May 28. storyhouse.com/event/now-is-good