Music: Gary Barlow
Lyrics: Gary Barlow and Tim Firth
Director: Matt Ryan
Reviewer: Clare White
It’s been 16 years since the film Calendar Girls was released, inspired by a true story about a Women’s Institute group from Yorkshire who ditched jam and Jerusalem to bare all for a nude charity calendar. It was the brainchild of Chris Harper, who wanted to raise funds to buy a settee for the cancer ward of the local hospital in memory of her best friend Annie’s late husband John. It’s a captivating story about a group of ordinary women who did something extraordinary which included raising nearly £5 million for Leukaemia charity Bloodwise, and led to a hit film, stage play, and now a musical created by Gary Barlow and Tim Firth.
A lot like Barlow and Firth’s other award-winning collaboration The Band, Calendar Girls: The Musical is full of northern warmth and self-deprecating humour. Set against a stunning backdrop of the Yorkshire Dales, the WI ladies, usually more comfortable with fruit cake and flower arranging, are challenged to shed their inhibitions and pose in their birthday suits for the fundraising calendar, with just a strategically placed currant bun or two to hide their modesty.
It’s a laugh-out-loud funny emotional rollercoaster, as one moment the ladies are suffering a WI talk about the history of broccoli and the next, supporting Annie when John loses his battle with cancer. It’s a clever balance, using humour to find light in the saddest of situations and capturing how these resilient women deal with grief, parenting, low self-esteem and infidelity while also grappling with getting starkers in front of a camera.
The best elements and one-liners from the film (‘We’re going to need considerably bigger buns…’) have been utilised well in this reimagined musical version and it’s also been reordered, which works brilliantly on stage so the story always has somewhere to go, leading up to the big strip off at the end. The addition of new characters, subplots and backstories add to its depth, as do the songs, which undoubtedly have a very Gary Barlow-esque stamp on them, if that is a thing. Mr B certainly knows how to craft a good tune – Yorkshire, My Russian Friend and I and I’ve Had a Little Work are all great fun and the Sunflowers of Yorkshire finale is particularly moving.
The vocal performances, comedy timing and camaraderie between the cast are joyful. Rebecca Storm is a force of nature as straight-talking WI rebel Chris, and has totally believable ‘we’ve been friends for 40 years’ chemistry with Sarah Jane Buckley, who plays best friend Annie. Sue Devaney is hilarious as feisty single mum Cora and Lisa Maxwell appears in her element as glamourous golfer Celia. The addition of the teenagers, played by Isabel Caswell, Tyler Dobbs and Danny Howker, gives a fun element, providing recognisable caricatures of those tricky adolescent years and parent/child relationships.
An excellently crafted musical delight about friendship and love, Calendar Girls: The Musical is uplifting, poignant and hilariously funny.
Runs Until 28 September 2019 and on tour | Image: Contributed