James Nesbitt returns to the stage at Chichester Festival Theatre: ‘I wanted to explore my theatre roots and challenge myself’

Kirsty MacLaren and James Nesbitt in rehearsal for This Is My Family at The Minerva Theatre, Chichester, April-June 2019. Picture by Johan Persson
Kirsty MacLaren and James Nesbitt in rehearsal for This Is My Family at The Minerva Theatre, Chichester, April-June 2019. Picture by Johan Persson
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James Nesbitt returns to the stage for the first time in 14 years for the Chichester Festival Theatre summer season opener, Tim Firth’s musical This Is My Family.

‘14 years… it is just the way it has worked out,’ says James, known to millions for screen appearances including Cold Feet and The Missing.

‘I went to the Central School of Drama and I did a lot of theatre when I first started and then television took over. I have done a lot of long-running TV series. It was a question of fitting it in. I have been filming so much and I have never been able to commit to the duration of a play.

‘But then about three or four years ago my agent said that (current CFT artistic director) Daniel Evans (who is directing the show) had got in touch about this. I read it and I loved it and I met Daniel and I met Tim Firth, but I was just filming. I didn’t get the opportunity and then I thought the opportunity had gone away. But then about six months to a year ago, they came back. They had held on for me for quite a while, and I just thought that I have got to do this. It was a great opportunity to work with Daniel. I had heard so many good things about him, and in fact, I had worked with him as an actor in The Passion which was about 10 years ago.

‘I just felt that it was too easy to become… well, not complacent because I am someone that works very hard. But I just thought that I wanted to do something different, to explore why I went into acting in the first place, to explore my theatre roots and to be able to challenge myself. And so far it is seeming to be the right decision!’

And it is also a reminder that TV acting and stage acting aren’t remotely the same thing: ‘It has been lovely to have six weeks to pick apart the part and really investigate it, but there are lots of things to learn. But it is great to have the discipline of the rehearsal room. I would not say that film is not so focused, but it is the idea of having to retain it longer in the theatre. You film a scene and that’s that, but with this I will be exploring it for six weeks and then playing it for seven weeks.’

James Nesbitt in rehearsal for This Is My Family at The Minerva Theatre, Chichester, April-June 2019. Picture by Johan Persson

James Nesbitt in rehearsal for This Is My Family at The Minerva Theatre, Chichester, April-June 2019. Picture by Johan Persson

The piece tells of a spirited 13-year-old who has entered a magazine competition to describe your family. The prize is a dream holiday for the lot of them, anywhere in the world.

Except… Nicky’s family isn’t the blissfully-happy bunch she’s described. More like the contestants in a gladiatorial arena, in fact. Where on Earth can she take them that might make her wishful thinking a reality?

‘I loved the play. It is very accessible. That’s the thing about Tim Firth. He is very sophisticated and intelligent, but he is also very accessible. It’s about a family that people will recognise. It is exquisitely funny, but it is also painfully truthful at times. It is about how families can start to operate down different tramlines without interweaving… and I think the songs are really wonderful. Tim has that great ability to go from speech into song so well.

‘I have always sung a lot. I used to sing at festivals when I was a kid. My first job out of drama school was a musical, but I haven’t done a musical for years. I have done musicals, but not for a very long time. It is just a question of getting your voice back to strength, by just training and doing it really.’

Joining James in the cast are Rachel Lumberg and Clare Burt, two originals from the show’s first production.

And it’s a show which brings Rachel back to the Chichester stage for the first time in more than 20 years.

She was in Katherine Howard in a production in the late 1990s in which the late Richard Griffiths played King Henry VIII.

‘Katherine Howard was wonderful,’ Rachel recalls. ‘We closed the season in Chichester, and it was a beautiful cast. I felt incredibly honoured to be within that cast. I kept in touch with Richard Griffiths until he died. He would pop over to me or vice versa. He was a lovely man, an absolutely-wonderful man. And I had always wanted to work in Chichester.’

She hasn’t done since, though – until now: ‘Nothing ever really arose for me, but I am really pleased to be back now.’

‘I was part of the original cast when we first did it many moons ago and then we took it to Sheffield where Daniel was artistic director at the time. Now we are bringing it back with a new cast with two of the originals, myself and Clare Burt.

‘It was a full production. We did it in the studio space and then a year later we took it on a small tour to see if it would work within a proscenium-arch setting as well as the studio. It did work in some spaces and it didn’t work in some others. It was quite a weird thing really, but really it is such an intimate piece.

‘You need the beauty of an intimate studio space where the audience actually feels like they are in the house with us and in the forest with us. You do find on a proscenium-arch setting, you are performing for an audience rather them being actually part of it. The beauty of this is that they actually do become part of it.

‘It is a beautiful piece, a really beautiful piece. It is so beautiful I can’t even begin to tell you. It is literally brimming over with heart. You will come along and see it and think: “I know this”, “I know that”, “I understand this”, “I understand that”… and the music is so integral. It is just like it is another character. Tim’s music is so wonderful. That alone is so beautiful, and the orchestration is just breath-taking.

‘I am playing the mum’s sister, Aunty Sian. I love Sian. Just when it is all teetering on the edge of tears, then Sian comes in. She is a big personality without a shadow of doubt. She is the younger sister, and secretly she would love to have what the family unit has got. She has recently divorced and she has now found herself or is trying to find herself, or so she thinks – and we see Sian going through various moments in her newfound self. She is wily. She has a lot of wisdom, and she is slightly bull in a china shop, but is all done with heart. And she absolutely loves her family.’

This is My Family is at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester from from April 20-June 15. Go to cft.org.uk.