Writer: Tim Firth and Gary Barlow
Director: Matt Ryan
Reviewer: Dan English
Preconceptions are thrown out of the window, along with pretty much everything else, as the Calendar Girls lay everything bare as part of its UK tour, reaching Dartford’s Orchard Theatre.
Continuing their successful musical theatre partnership, Tim Firth and Gary Barlow combine again to provide an entertaining book focusing on the extraordinary actions of ordinary ladies from Yorkshire. This is a funny and heart-warming piece, which only pushes the notion that Firth and Barlow can put together engaging pieces of theatre, with this piece preceding the already popular ‘The Band’, which is also currently enjoying a nationwide tour. Indeed, like ‘The Band’, Firth and Barlow’s focus on ‘regular people’ creates an instantly accessible and almost homely quality to the piece.
Calendar Girls the Musical focuses on the lives, trials and tribulations of ordinary women from Yorkshire who come together to produce a nude calendar, amid great scepticism from their Women’s Institute counterparts, in order to raise money for charity. It is a musical about hope and triumph, but also profoundly about a sense of loss, and its impact on both an individual and collective scale. Firth and Barlow’s production is based upon the true story, and influenced by the successful 2003 film, and real-life story, but adds a strong soundtrack which helped see it nominated for Best New Musical at the 2017 Olivier Awards.
There is a wonderful chemistry between the show’s leading ladies in this warm, female-driven piece. Spearheading the production is Anna-Jane Casey’s Anna, whose struggles to come to terms with her husband’s death inspires best friend Chris (Rebecca Storm) to launch the famous nude calendar, shocking their WI group.
Casey’s delivery of Anna is with exceptional warmth, and it’s her vulnerability in the wake of her husband’s decline that stands out in this piece. In addition, Casey does well to convey a range of emotions through song, and captures the feelings immersed in Barlow and Firth’s book.
The prim and proper approach of the WI, seen as prudish jam makers, is sent up wonderfully in this piece, embodied well by Storm’s Chris, but also the performances of Denise Welch and Karen Dunbar as Celia and Cora respectively. Both provide the play’s sillier moments, as well as Sara Crowe’s desperately sheltered Ruth. Pauline Daniels’ Jessie is the elder stateswoman of the group, and Daniels does well to explore the frustrations and refusals of growing old. Indeed, as the women contemplate the notion of a tasteful nude calendar, their performance together to close Act One signposts the strength in depth this production boasts. In addition, the hysterical photo-shoot scene is a testament to the wit and timing of the cast and will leave you crying with laughter.
The entire cast demonstrates a considerable vocal range, with each song a unique moment in the production and enhancing this heart-warming story further. A mention must also go to Fern Britton as WI chair Marie, capturing the snobbish nature of her character well. There remains a charm to Marie’s character, especially in her conflicts as the calendar takes off, and as she grapples to regain control of wantaway daughter, Jenny (Isabel Caswell), although it is a shame this relationship isn’t fully explored.
Robert Jones’ set design provides a backdrop of the rolling Yorkshire Dales yet is malleable and allows for swift and simple set changes. It is a simple set that impacts but does not detract from this very personal and character-driven piece.
The show, at times, does drift and struggles in part to keep momentum, but the relationships built between audience and characters does not allow the pace to detract disastrously. Firth and Barlow seem to have a knack at making fun yet moving pieces, and one can only hope that this fruitful collaboration continues, with Calendar Girls being yet another hilarious and moving success for the pair.
Runs until 16 March 2019 then continues on Tour | Image: Contributed