Writers, music & lyrics: Gary Barlow and Tim Firth
Director: Matt Ryan
Movement: Lucy Hind
Reviewer: Janet Jepson
The Women’s Institute was set up in 1915 to bring together women from all walks of life, an organisation that claims to be based on the ideals of fellowship, truth, tolerance and justice. No mention of stripping off and posing naked with flowers, knitting projects, or the fruits of your baking labours.
Fast forward to 1999 and a WI group from the small village of Cracoe in North Yorkshire did just that, with the inclusion of a piano, some large hats and various other props to maintain their modesty. All this was in an effort – a highly successful one as it turned out – to raise money for the charity that was then named Leukaemia Research (now Bloodwise), following the death from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma of John Baker, the husband of Angela, one of the group’s members. It had been a joke between John and the ladies that they would stick with local countryside scenes for their annual calendar and never dare embark on a Pirelli-style nude version. But the plucky ladies took up the dare and did John proud. To date, five million pounds has been raised on the back of their creative courage, and with a film, a play and now a musical based on their exploits, their story, and fundraising looks set to carry on for a good while yet.
This musical production penned jointly by friends Gary Barlow and Tim Firth is one not to be missed; they have captured the tragedy and comedy of the story perfectly. An array of beautiful Yorkshire countryside provides a backdrop for the show, it almost feels as if it would be possible to walk over those hills after passing through John’s wooden gate. There are classic lines that have passed from film, to play, and then to musical – such as the M&S Victoria sponge wisdom – but on the whole, this is a fresh new version that is totally led by the wonderful characters of the ladies.
In true WI style “it takes all sorts” and the group is a mixed bunch, each bringing her own dynamics to the plot. Annie, John’s wife (played by Anna-Jane Casey) comes over as a gentle but strong character, with a steely determination to make sure that something good can come from her wonderful husband’s premature death. It is only a comfortable settee for the waiting room at the hospital that she begins fundraising for, but like those sunflowers of John’s, the project blossoms. Annie has some beautiful reflective songs, such as Scarborough and Kilimanjaro, that reveal how much she is suffering through this, but equally how much the group is supporting her.
Best friend Chris (Rebecca Storm) is the brash, blousy one who urges everyone on, a former Miss Yorkshire, a flower shop owner with her husband Rod (Ian Mercer of Coronation Street fame). She’s the one who rips off her bra first, as revealing as one of her blooms. Celia “I’ve Had a Little Work Done”, aka Denise Welch, is the fit, gym-haunting gal who’s up for anything as she struts around in her heels. Then there’s Ruth, a seemingly timid soul played by Sara Crowe, who’s abused by her husband but consoles herself by endless baking and drudgery. She comes up trumps in the end though, and she and her “Russian Friend” make the grade behind an artfully decorated table of fruit.
Jessie (Pauline Daniels) is the mature lady, retired headmistress, who “acts the colour of [her] heart”, and hides her dry wit behind her knitting. Maybe the most memorable of the ladies is Cora (Karen Dunbar) with her lilting Scottish accent and cheeky attitude. She’s the vicar’s daughter specialising in rewriting Christmas carols with rude words, who succumbed to the charms of a guitar player (sadly not a classical orchestra member) behind Morrison’s, and became single mum to Tommo (aka Tyler Dobbs, cheeky as his mum). Cora has many of the hilarious one-liners: “I nearly got [toad] in the hole”; and “if Jesus had teenage kids, the Bible would be very different”. Incidentally, she’s also the one brave enough to sit starkers at a piano at the front of the stage with no modesty props!
Everyone else on stage is equally brilliant; the husbands who think “WI counts as wildlife”, and the young people who play the group’s teenage offspring. Fern Britton’s role as chairwoman Marie is staid and almost military, she’s the leader and never really involves herself. It is interesting to note that several of the actors have done stand-up comedy at times during their careers, and these skills definitely enhance the performance.
This is such a feel-good musical. It portrays all the best about what a group of women can achieve together. Support, friendship, heartache, success and good laughs along the way are all there in equal measure. On the evening of this review, a group of the original Calendar Girls were welcomed onto the stage after the finale, looking somewhat older, but just as fabulous wonderful as they did 20 years ago, and maybe slightly bemused about how it all blossomed. The lovely ladies received a total standing ovation, as did the cast after the performance. Calendar Girls the Musical one of those perfect shows that everyone leaves feeling uplifted, but with just a small lump in the throat.
Runs until Saturday 13 April 2019 | Image: Contributed