It’s right that the arrival of a new musical should be a positive, optimistic occasion. The opening night atmosphere for Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s show was extra electric. With a crowd this committed – including the original, real-life ‘Calendar Girls’ who are the show’s inspiration making a trip to the West End – it’s hard to gain an objective impression. But it’s clear that this is a fun and engaging night out, with lots of heart and plenty of brains behind it.
Firth has already written up the story, of Women’s Institute members who posed nude for a calendar, for stage and screen. Here, the plot is simplified, which works well, and the script more youth friendly, which works less well. Big emotions arrive quickly. Annie, grieving for her husband, and her friends, led by school chum Chris, decide to raise money in his memory. They fight stuffy conventions to make this a feel-good, grown-up show that’s sentimental but effective.
As with many a British musical of late, the show removes us from London. Here, it becomes a paean for Yorkshire (it’s canny of the tourist board to sponsor the programme). The view is idealised, but the team have clearly worked closely with the community to develop the show. And, with its admiration for women of “a certain age”, Firth’s focus is on an under-represented demographic without patronising it… too much.
The cast makes a lot out of roles far from complex. In the leads, Joanna Riding and Claire Moore hold the stage and their chemistry leads to both funny and sad moments. The turns provided for other WI stalwarts are contrived and slight, but superbly performed and entertaining. Sophie-Louise Dann and Claire Machin bring strong voices to their roles, while Michele Dotrice and Debbie Chazen show off impeccable comedy skills. The finale, of the group disrobing for the cameras, takes guts, and handling it so lightly is a big achievement.
The music is a collaborative effort from Barlow and Firth. It’s an understatement that the former can write a good tune and there are plenty here. It would be too generous to say that they are memorable but all the songs are enjoyable, and there’s a nice mix of comedy and pathos. A variety of musical styles are included, somewhat studiously, and there’s a satisfying distance from any pop-song fodder. The lyrics are the best and boldest bit, basking in the prosaic, everyday details that embody the show’s down-to-earth nature and generous spirit.
Until 22 April 2017
Photo by Matt Crockett, Dewynters