Writers: Gary Barlow and Tim Firth
Design: Robert Jones
Musical Staging: Lucy Hind
Director: Matt Ryan
Orchestrations: Steve Parry
Reviewer: Rob Atkinson
To judge a musical theatre rendition of a story against its original movie production, or even against the in-between incarnation of a stage play, is to risk comparing chalk with cheese; they’re simply different animals with different types of appeal and that’s that. And yet it’s surely impossible, even avoiding such invidious comparison, to miss the sense that significant evolution has taken place in between the 2003 film Calendar Girls, via its acclaimed 2008 stage version, and ending up with Calendar Girls, the Musical which lit up the stage at the Leeds Grand Theatre last night. It’s a story of tragedy and triumph, of loss and discovery; in short, it’s the archetypal material for a musical, where the songs can bring out the poignancy and tug the heartstrings in a fashion not permitted by prosaic dialogue alone.
There’s an internal theme in the Calendar Girls story, summed up by a wry and tender little speech early in the piece:
The flowers of Yorkshire are like the women of Yorkshire, every stage of their growth has its own beauty, but the last phase is always the most glorious, then very quickly they all go to seed.
Allowing for that tongue in cheek punchline, it’s easy enough to look at the evolution of the Calendar Girls story and to conclude, having seen the work of Gary Barlow, Tim Firth and their talented cast and production team greeted by a standing ovation, that this musical theatre treatment is indeed the most glorious phase – and that it won’t be going to seed any time soon.
Calendar Girls the Musical is a very human story, set in a Yorkshire village against a background of a Women’s Institute (WI) branch and its everyday preoccupations. When tragedy strikes, with the death from cancer of Annie’s husband John, there’s a sense of wistfulness for the mundane comforts snatched away by bereavement. Anna-Jane Casey, as Annie, charts the decline and loss of her husband John (Phil Corbitt) in a series of heart-wrenching laments, as hope fades and grim reality bites. But Annie is not alone as she copes with the aftermath of John’s death; her friends and fellow WI members rally around her, led by the redoubtable Chris (Rebecca Storm), who hatches the audacious plan to raise money for a memorial by means of a nude photo-shoot calendar.
The WI members are a motley crew of warm hearts and kindred spirits from varying backgrounds, usually in thrall to the organisational influence of branch chairperson Marie (Fern Britton). Marie’s initial resistance to the calendar idea, as well as the ladies’ own differing degrees of scepticism and self-doubt, are gradually overcome; again, the spot-on musical score narrates this process incredibly well. Ruth (Sara Crowe) thinks she just can’t do it; Jessie (Ruth Madoc) is feeling the effects of anno domini, Celia (Denise Welch) has hang-ups about surgical enhancements and Cora (Karen Dunbar) brings her own brand of independence to the dilemma of “shall we or shan’t we”, as the friends agonise over the prospect of shedding their clothes for the camera.
There is a neat comedy sub-plot too, carried off without missing a laugh by youngsters Jenny (Isabel Caswell), Tommo (Tyler Dobbs) and Danny (Danny Howker). In a musical that takes us from tragedy to triumph, but still with an abiding sense of loss, the antics and appeal of the young actors are welcome, and a necessary upswing on the emotional roller-coaster.
Calendar Girls the Musical hits all the right notes, in treating a sensitive subject without mawkishness, and in capturing the inspirational nature of a true story. Highly recommended.
Runs until 1st September 2018 | Image: Contributed