It’s not every day Tim Firth premieres a new stage show – in fact, the award-winning Cheshire-born writer reveals it usually takes five years for his work to mature from initial idea to the stage.
And that’s exactly what’s happened with Now is Good, the jewel in the crown of Storyhouse’s spring season and Tim’s first new musical since he created The Band with friend Gary Barlow in 2017.
While the celebration of the songs of Take That was an all-singing, all-dancing pop-infused spectacle, Now Is Good perhaps sits more closely – both in theme and feel – next to his enchanting earlier work This is My Family.
And rather like that intimate tale, Now is Good explores the relationship between the generations, although here with the added theatrical frisson which comes from having cast members as young as five on stage.
The idea behind the magical new show emerged from experiences in its writer’s own life.
One was the Friday afternoon ‘fun singing’ sessions for primary school children which he and wife Katy led for many years in their village near Frodsham, and which eventually included taking youngsters to sing for residents at a local care home.
“What happened in that room was so extraordinary it’s always stayed with me,” Tim recalls. “The presence of music and song forged a bridge between these generations; it gave them a common language and it also unlocked doorways for a lot of residents there.”
The second inspiration was his late father Gordon, with whom he created the BAFTA Award-winning children’s comedy TV series Roger and the Rottentrolls, and whose memory turned into the “driving force through the middle” of what became Now is Good.
Tim smiles: “He was an extraordinary guy who was a head teacher in Runcorn and Stockton Heath and a water colourist.
“But he was also one of those guys who would make art with anything – clay, paint and people. He managed to bring the best out of people, and he’d talk to the people that no one else would or didn’t have any time for.”
And the third ‘leg’ of the creative stool on which the story sits is the idea of combatting loneliness – something which was foremost in his mind before the pandemic lockdowns of the past two years threw it into even sharper relief.
Once he had forged these ideas into one tentative narrative arc, Tim decided to “try a little test” which involved hiring actors and his village hall and staging the first 15 minutes of the musical – with infants from the neighbouring school timed to enter the room at exactly the moment that children arrive in the play.
“And what happened in that room that Friday afternoon was the reason that I wrote the rest of it,” he says.
It may seem surprising when you look at his CV – in addition to This Is My Family and The Band, his credits also include Calendar Girls the Musical and the Olivier Award-winning Madness-inspired Our House – but despite always writing music and plays, for the first 10 years of Tim’s career he never thought about combining the two.
“In a way there’s no point beating yourself up for the time that you wasted, because maybe I couldn’t have done it at that time,” he considers. “And the great thing is that I kept writing, and I kept writing music and the desire to do it never went away.
“And actually, what’s happened in the last 20 years is that the structure of musicals has become broader, and the way musicals can exist, the format that they can take, has actually started to become very much more exciting.”
Often his shows fall somewhere between being a play and a musical, where in Tim’s words “the music’s presence is this constant, shifting alliance between what is spoken and what is sung.”
And he admits that there’s nothing he dislikes more than a musical where you can see a big number coming from a mile away, describing it as “bum squeaky embarrassing when I feel these characters are only singing because the writers wanted them to sing, and they had this great tune.
“For music to earn its place at the table in this story, it had to have a fundamental narrative role – and it absolutely does because it forges the bridge between generations, it unlocks the memories that unlock the spirit of the people.”
He hopes Chester theatregoers of all ages will also embrace that spirit.
Having seen touring productions of other of his shows at Storyhouse, Tim says he’s struck by how the charity “has forged a relationship with its city.”
He explains: “The more you do for theatre in this country, and the more you have shows touring, the more you realise you live or die on that as a theatre. Because theatre is all about taking risks, as artists and writers – and as a member of the audience.
“Very often you don’t know what you’re going to see, but you take a risk. And your willingness to take a risk depends entirely on the trust you put in the theatre.
“And Storyhouse seems to have absolutely fought for and earned a relationship with Chester in quite short a time.”