Music and lyrics: Gary Barlow and Tim Firth
Director; Matt Ryan
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
With a new cast including the talented and deservedly popular Lesley Joseph, Calendar Girls the Musical, with music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Tim Firth, based on the award-winning film Calendar Girls written by Firth and Juliette Towhidi, opened on stage in the Wales Millennium Centre Cardiff last night. Telling the story of how a group of women WI members up in Yorkshire produced a nude calendar to raise funds in memory of John, the husband of one of them who had suffered an early death from leukaemia, the musical theatre version is faithful to the film and the true story on which it centres.
A slow-burning start did not bode well, despite the atmospheric backdrop of the Yorkshire Hills and some great lighting throughout by lighting designer Oliver Fenwick; opening the show with a solo extolling the virtues of living in Yorkshire while setting the scene on what is to come, Phil Corbitt, as John, does not have an easy task. But fear not, dear reader, as the story progresses and the characters become more familiar to us, matters improve dramatically.
By the time we segue into the second half, we are drawn into empathising with ‘the girls’ whose separate backstories are the focus of the musical. And what a group they are – from the feisty Chris (Rebecca Storm) to the reticent Ruth (Julia Hills), all of them have hang-ups, related to us in a series of songs, telling by their very titles: the wry Mrs Conventional, the give-away Protect Me Less and, memorably, What Age Expects, powerfully belted out by Joseph, surprisingly diminutive without the stiletto heels she wears as Dorien Green in Birds of A Feather, currently being aired on TV’s Drama channel.
Catchy tunes, and wittily perceptive in their acknowledgment of human foibles, and yet – somehow not memorable although it is not easy to pinpoint the reason for this. Some outstanding performances nevertheless, including that of Sue Delaney as Cora and Lisa Maxwell as Celia, and specifically Hills’ poignant My Russian Friend and I – to say more on this level would be a spoiler. There is both comedy and pathos, with witty asides that had the audience laughing out loud, and it is here that Barlow and Firth come into their own, ironic as it may be that the raison d’ȇtre behind both the film and the musical arising from it, is the kind of shattering news we all dread – the death of a loved one through a terminal disease.
A riotous scene as the calendar is shot is, of course, a highlight as the show reaches its climax, as every one of the ladies, despite their initial reluctance, eventually bares all – discreetly, of course, although there was some potentially alarming slippage of dressing gowns at times at this performance. Awarded a standing ovation by a large part of the audience, this is a musical to enjoy for what it is, but despite the new compositions fitted around the story, somehow doesn’t quite capture the essence of the original for this reviewer.
Runs until 11th May 2019 | Image: Contributed
Perhaps you have to be a woman of a certain age to truly appreciate this show. Baring all for older and less perfect women would truly be a trial and this was done expertly. Opening in Belfast last night it closed to a standing ovation and was to me much more poignant than the original script. It brought me to tears twice – once in sorrow as the cancer took hold and then in laughter as the script evolved.
I would say it’s one of the most enjoyable and original musicals I’ve seen in some time and I’m an avid theatre goer.