Writers: Gary Barlow and Tim Firth
Director: Matt Ryan
Reviewer: Dominic Corr
Baring heart, soul and (yes) flesh for us all, Calendar Girls the Musical brings the warming hue of sunflowers to the chilled streets of Edinburgh. A year in Yorkshire, filled with fêtes, baking and meetings of the Women’s Institute. The base story remains unchanged for the new touring musical. After Annie tragically loses her adoring husband John to cancer she and best friend Chris seek to fund a settee for the local hospital’s relatives’ room – by producing a nude calendar. If that doesn’t sell you, your sense of humour is officially pushing up sunflowers.
Economy drives theatre, just as much (if not more so) than creative muse. The inclusion of star vehicles is expected, with mixed results. For every Ms September (Karen Dunbar) who is witty, engaging, there’s a drab, predictable Ms W.I. – Fern Britton here offers little other than her name, her performance no different than her televised appearances. Though casting weighs more on the positive, with the vocals of Ruth Madoc particularly marvellously.
Vocally, Annie and Chris are portrayed by the least lime-lighted of tonight’s leading ladies. Both stellar performers in musical theatre, Anna-Jane Casey and Rebecca Storm contribute a needed element. Whilst not all of Barlow’s story-driven numbers make sense, there are highlights such as Yorkshire and Who Wants a Silent Night? Attempting to blend talent with vocals, performers such as Dunbar and Casey excel. It is in these moments we see Casey’s performing elements stitch sublimely with her vocals.
Returning once more to his lovechild, responsible for both its cinematic and original stage outing is Tim Firth. Both deconstructing but respecting the subject matter, Firth balances the script well – changing enough for it to stand as its own piece. Perhaps what at first seems the oddest addition, is the introducing a daughter to the cast. Jenny (Isabel Caswell), daughter to Britton’s character Marie, is a ‘trouble-maker’ depraved and lacking in morals. At its core, this production offers offhanded commentary regarding women and the attitudes we (they) have regarding their bodies, exposure and ageing. To introduce a new generation to this has been a rejuvenating fresh take, though it isn’t capitalised on.
And whilst Tim Firth’s writing balances the unique blend of Northern British humour with pathos, Barlow’s lyrics leave a sour note in the ears. Excluding one or two catchy numbers, the length of the lyrics is ridiculous. At times you won’t catch the tail end as it’s forced out. Emotions can be relied upon to communicate; the audience has the capacity to draw dots and conclusions – without exposition being stuffed into redundant lines.
What we’ve all been waiting for, in no vulgarity intended, is for these ladies to get their kit off. The photoshoot, iconic for the original film and expertly crafted for the 2015 stage show. At times clunky, there are a few awkward transitions but hey – you try disrobing in front of an Edinburgh audience seamlessly. It delivers the pay-off, the loudest cheers, and whoops and embraces everything the production stands for. Whilst also drawing attention to the striking, if simple set design and props.
Pure Blighty at heart, Calendar Girls is a quintessentially British comedy. Its jokes can land, though some fall flat. Same with character, some are painting by numbers, others less caricature, fleshed out and relatable. Pleasant, endearing with just enough oomph to rally our jeering applause. The real stars of Calendar Girls are its women onstage, screen and historically associated with the production. Still raising money for Bloodwise, this is a charming feel-good production for each generation.
Runs until 13 October 2018 then touring | Image: