DramaMusicalReviewSouth West

Calendar Girls – The Musical – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Music: Gary Barlow

Lyrics: Gary Barlow and Tim Firth

Director: Matt Ryan

Reviewer: Kelyn Luther

This is not the first adaptation of the film Calendar Girls. The original stage adaptation (non-musical) had two national tours, the second of which lasted for two years. Will Gary Barlow’s musical adaptation, previously titled The Girls, equal this success and does it capture the appeal of the original film and its stage adaptation?

Wisely, Tim Firth, the original screenwriter and writer for the stage adaptation, wrote the book for the musical. A faithful adaptation is key to the success of Calendar Girls– perhaps a necessity in dealing with the sensitive topics Calendar Girls covers. It’s based on the true story of a group of middle-aged members of a Yorkshire Women’s Institute (WI) society, who decide to pose for a nude calendar to raise money for Leukaemia Research after one of the members’ husband dies of cancer.

Sarah Jane Buckley as widowed Annie struck an excellent balance: allowing the emotion to come through without making it melodramatic. This is helped greatly by the songs, Scarborough being a particularly good example of grief reduced to the minutiae of everyday life.

Being Northerners themselves, Firth and Barlow create a great sense of place. The musical isn’t set in some generic version of the North but feels specific – and yet audience members from any rural town will certainly relate to the depiction of village life.

Barlow can, of course, nail the inspirational pop anthem as evidenced by his music with Take That but he has worked hard to capture the rhythms of musical theatre rather than rehashing his pop hits like ‘Shine’ or ‘Rule The World’. The songs are co-written by Firth and Barlow; oddly there seems to be no distinction made in the credits between lyricist and musician. Whoever you choose to credit with particular lyrics, the quality of the songs is also in their memorable tunes. This is a show where you will come out singing the songs, particularly uplifting number ‘Yorkshire’.

The humour from the WI traditions is well observed, particularly in the prim leader Marie (on the night of this review, the role was played by Nikki Gerrard), with her emphasis on the importance of presentation when displaying cake.

The women of the WI are all made distinct; no one is there simply to make up the numbers and each of them gets their chance to shine in a song well-suited to their role- whether this is pianist Cora (played by Sue Devaney)’s jazzy number Who Wants A Silent Night?, Jess’s anthem fighting the stereotypes of What Age Expects, which Lesley Joseph performs in a Rex Harrison style that works brilliantly. And for comic numbers, Julia Hills as Ruth, singing My Russian Friend and I – an ode to the bottle – is very funny. Rather than relying solely on the joke of middle-aged respectable WI ladies daring to bare all for a calendar, the humour comes from the characters and Firth’s script, which has plenty of laughs amongst the sniffles.

The teenage characters are fine; not too annoying or trying to dominate the show, which is rightly focused on the WI members. Of these actors, Isabel Caswell particularly stands out as rebellious daughter Jenny.

It’s a rare adaptation that wins out over the original but this musical adaptation does just that. The original film’s treatment of the story played more on conflict and audiences being surprised at older actresses baring all. The play felt like a home for older actresses rather than an opportunity to show their skills. Though the musical is basically the same as the play, it shows the difference songs can make in lifting up the humour and emotions and overall creates a more charming piece: an ode to the ordinary, where the women are supportive of each other.

Runs until 3rd August 2019 | Image: Contributed

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The Southwest team is under the editorship of Holly Spanner. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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