Writers: Gary Barlow and Tim Firth
Director: Jonathan O’Boyle
Like the similarly themed The Full Monty, Calendar Girls has seeped into the zeitgeist since both appearing as movies in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Celebrating camaraderie and the plucky British spirit to face fears and (literally) bear all, both films are illustrations that no one needs or deserves to be relegated to the perceived human scrapheap reserved for those who don’t fit into society’s idea of perfection. Of course Calendar Girls also has the added depth of actually being loosely based on true events and while the musical version of The Full Monty Americanised the story, Calendar Girls the Musical is not only brilliantly British, it is also extremely proudly Yorkshire.
The story of a set of Women’s Institute (W.I.) members who decide to shake off the fusty image of the W.I. and produce a nude calendar to raise money following the death of one of their husbands, Calendar Girls is not plot-heavy. The drama and humour come from human nature and interactions and it is here that this production excels by assembling a near-perfect cast of talented ladies. While a lot of the characters may be thinly-sketched, the performances of the collected cast convey a strong sense of love and humour, and this magical combination comes across the footlights loud and clear. We are never in any doubt that this set of women care for each other and for their cause.
Tanya Franks is the emotional core of the show as Annie, who loses her husband John (Colin R Campbell: wonderfully sincere and touching) to leukaemia and pushes through her grief to fight against convention. Franks’ performance is beautifully balanced between mournful and determined and her delivery of Kilimanjaro, an ode to the loneliness of losing a partner, is heart-breaking. Her scenes with Campbell never leave any doubt that this is a couple who love each other absolutely, a very strong foundation for the story. As the wild and care-free Chris, Coronation Street’s Amy Robbins delivers a scene-stealing performance and shows exceptional comic timing, while also delivering genuine pathos when Chris’s usual confidence is shaken. These two form the core of the story and the cast, and are both exceptional.
Maureen Nolan plays Ruth and while her role is underwritten and the sub-plot regarding her philandering husband is given short-shrift, she still manages to make an impression, especially during the climactic photoshoot. It is frustrating however that although it is alluded to that her character is possibly a recovering alcoholic, her interactions with alcohol are all played for laughs. Lyn Paul exudes authority as retired teacher Jessie, Honeysuckle Weeks has a charming twinkle as the secretly rebellious Cora, and Marti Webb has great subtlety as the posh Celia. Paula Tappenden’s Marie is the closest thing that this story has to an antagonist and she has a wonderful line in chirpy forcefulness that makes way to bitter resentment. Rounding out the main cast as Chris’s husband Rod is Graham MacDuff, giving a strong but beautifully gentle performance as an easy-going spouse who ends up being the photographer for the calendar.
Although advertised as a musical, Calendar Girls could perhaps be more accurately described as a play with songs. Yes, there are a lot of songs and all of them are original (with the exception of the compulsory Jerusalem), but with a (excellent) fixed set, a small cast and no choreography to speak of, the songs act more as an extension of the script and are mostly there to deepen the characters or the emotions. However, the need to give each lady their own character-driven song starts to feel a little A Chorus Line, and while they are all good while they last, none of the tunes are at all memorable (with the possible exception of the opening number Yorkshire, but that’s more likely to be due to the fact that it is reprised about 17 times throughout the show). The lyrics are more successful and offer as many jokes and heart-rending lines as the script itself.
Calendar Girls The Musical is a very funny, life-affirming show that is elevated even higher by this fantastic cast. It produces genuine emotion and hearty laughs and it is definitely an event you should make a date with.
Runs until 26th November 2023