Review: Now is Good at Chester Storyhouse ****
If the last two years have taught us anything it’s that human connection is vitally important to our wellbeing – and yet while we’re instantly linked to the world at the swipe of a screen, many of us feel more disconnected and alone than ever.
Tim Firth has taken ideas of the power of communication, of human interaction, of finding childlike joy in life’s small moments, of grief and memory, and of the importance of community, and has created a slice of theatrical whimsy which asks its audience to leap into the unknown alongside its characters.
At the heart of the story is eccentric retired builder Ray (Jeff Rawle), a character inspired by Firth’s own late father Gordon, whom we first meet in a post-apocalyptic moment of prone contemplation as he awaits rescue from the predicament he finds himself in.
This opening scene also introduces us to the singular style of Firth’s ‘play with music’ which those who saw his enchanting 2013 musical This Is My Family will recognise, where the cast move fluently from speaking to singing to speaking (often in Rex Harrison sung/spoken style), with the music mainly underscoring the characters’ private thoughts and musings.
Above: Ray (Jeff Rawle) and Neil (Chris Hannon). Top: The cast of Now Is Good. Photos by Mark McNulty
Ray, who loves nothing better than to scavenge for discarded flotsam and jetsam to repurpose, is a world away in temperament and outlook from his meticulous, buttoned up health and safety officer son Neil (Chris Hannon). But together the disparate pair are converting an old high street bank into a new home.
It becomes both a physical and a symbolic conversion of course.
Once the heart of the community but like much else in this internet-governed world, now abandoned, the building slowly emerges as a place to congregate again with the irrepressible Ray gathering a motley collection of elderly waifs and strays, along with a class of schoolchildren led by their enthusiastic teacher, about him.
Resistance to Ray’s sunny, youthful and imaginative love of life turns out to be futile as not just Neil but a trio of fellow pensioners – the formerly fleet-footed Alice now queen of the mobility scooter, reserved widowed surgeon Ted and particularly the cantankerous Ivy – discover.
Michele Dotrice as Ivy. Photo by Mark McNulty
Michele Dotrice is simply magnificent as the testy, plain-speaking old trade unionist who insists she’s having none of Ray’s fanciful games, seize-the-day silliness and innocent wonder.
“Nothing makes me more angry than people trying to make me happy,” she mutters in one delicious tirade against the fun being foisted upon her.
And yet eventually Ivy becomes just as invested as the rest.
The bank’s conversion may not go exactly to an exasperated Neil’s plan, but those who find themselves drawn to it certainly undergo a permanent change.
Charming in a deliberately homespun way, like Ray’s will-o-the-wisp imagination Now Is Good is also not always easy to pin down.
It’s less perhaps less about what happens than about how it makes you feel, its slight plot forming a framework for Firth – aided and abetted by director Joyce Branagh and musical director George Francis - to construct a crenellated edifice of resonant emotions.
Heart-warming and brimming humanity, it encourages you to open yourself to possibilities and embrace life in all its rich and invigorating variety.