Writers, Book and Lyrics: Gary Barlow and Tim Firth
Director: Jonathan O’Boyle
The peculiarly British sensibility that produces farces with trouserless vicars and Carry On films has had a face-lift, the addition of some sensibility, and a dollop of charm. Calendar Girls, the Musical is a very sincere attempt, by Gary Barlow and Tim Firth, to tell a pair of stories.
The best one is the story of Annie (Tanya Franks) and her much-loved husband John (Colin R. Campbell) diagnosed with end-stage cancer. Barlow’s songs are tender and poignant, Tanya Franks sings them really well, and the band holds back on its habitual crash-bang accompaniment. It’s a delicate, touching little story told with taste and a resistance to sentiment. It feels true. The other story is the mildly salacious, politely rude, gently shocking story of the members of a Yorkshire Women’s Institute that took their kit off for charity, became a global sensation, and brought in oodles of money for blood cancer research.
A semi-naturalistic set with small scenes brutally wedged onto the fore-stage, direction by numbers, and a cast seemingly assembled because they used to be in something else people used to like, all adds up to a competent but uninspiring evening. This despite sterling efforts by the actors – Tanya Franks is delicately moving, Honeysuckle Weeks brings a hint of reality to her astoundingly underwritten character, and Amy Robbins, tasked with being the serially rebellious hell-raiser who makes it all kick off, works very hard indeed to give her character Chris a sliver of depth. Everyone has a moment, but moments are all they are. The band entering most of the songs at a volume that drowns out the lyrics doesn’t help.
The worst moments in the piece are the most anticipated, the moments where the respectable, older-than-thirty, members of a society dedicated to macrame and plum jam, remove their clothes in public. The tangled moral wrestling match that the production has with itself, between naughty thrills, body-positive expressions of joy, and a sort of 1950’s prudishness, is painful to watch. The end result is the sort of tittering rudeness of tea-time situation comedies, without the energy. There is an awful lot of juggling towels, with a triumphant pay-off as yet another actor manages not to flash any significant body parts and at the same time celebrates their daring.
There is a running theme of re-birth, featuring sunflowers and seeds, which is pleasing and hope-filled, but when all allowances have been made, this is a story that has been provoking pleasantly shocked titters for quite a while. Once, it was surprising. Now, it’s just a bit tired.
Runs until 4 November 2023 and continues to tour