Review: Calendar Girls (touring) Nottingham Theatre Royal. 25 June – 6 July 2019.

The phenomenon that is Calendar Girls still delivers a bracing breath of fresh air and a sunny blast of Yorkshire humour to the stage in its latest incarnation, the Musical. Currently on a UK tour, it continues to connect with audiences and raise funds for Bloodwise, a blood cancer charity, some 16 years after the original film.

The musical has been created by Tim Firth, original writer of the film screenplay and the stage play, and well-known singer-songwriter Gary Barlow. Both Yorkshire lads, their personal response to the emotive story, led them to want to develop it into a musical. The original WI Calendar Girls whom the story is based on, are reported to say that the musical is the closest to the truth of their lives, featuring as it does more of the community life than either the film or the stage play.

Based on true life events, if follows the story of a group of Women’s Institute members, who decide to raise some money for a new visitor’s sofa in the local hospital, when one of their husbands is diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In real life, John Baker sadly died aged just 54 after just a few months of treatment. In the months following her loss, wife Angela Baker and friends set about creating the now infamous ‘nude’ calendar, to raise money for Bloodwise.

The cast, led by Sarah-Jane Buckley as Annie and Rebecca Storm as larger than life Chris, are without fault, creating interesting and individual characters that feel real. Buckley’s skilled portrayal of loving wife Annie, devastated by the loss of her husband, is really moving, and her singing wonderfully natural, though powerful too. The women recount their individual stories of how they came to join the WI, many and various, and it’s a great advertisement for myth-busting some of the assumptions about who belongs in the WI and who doesn’t. Sue Devaney as Cora, gives a gritty and warm-hearted portrayal of a single mum, a Vicar’s daughter who tries to fit in. Julia Hills is Ruth, the proper bun-baking and craft-making wife, dutifully waiting at home for her unfaithful husband. Her song ‘My Russian Friend and I’ is heart-breakingly funny and poignant. Jessie, a dynamic former headteacher determined not to ‘act her age’ is beautifully played by Lesley Joseph and her song of rage, ‘What Age Expects’, gets a huge chorus of approval from the audience.

The musical introduces more of the husbands and children to the story than either the film or the stage play, and this fills out the idea of the community being portrayed. The teenagers provide contrast to the main story and give the family perspective to the challenges the women face. Danny Howker is Danny, aspiring Head Boy and Tyler Dobbs his apparently more knowing mate Tommo. Isabel Caswell plays Jenny, the rebellious daughter of WI Chair Marie, with great comic timing and powerful vocals, and it is great to see a local Nottingham actress, trained at Television Workshop, on the Theatre Royal stage.

The set is simple but dramatic, aiming to capture the rolling hills and wide open skies of the Yorkshire Dales, with the rest of the action being determined by a few additional props. The scene where the ladies finally ‘bare all’ for the calendar photo shoot is slickly handled and cleverly done, though the nervous laughter from the audience reveals just how unnerving the idea of removing one’s clothes in public is to the majority of people present.

The on-going popularity of the story bears witness to its life-affirming and uplifting message, and the portrayal of middle-aged British women as complex, interesting people in themselves, and not as adjuncts to husbands or as mothers. It deftly captures the deeply personal and supportive relationships between women, with an added dose of wry, Yorkshire humour and a down to earth ‘no nonsense’ approach.

Making this story into a musical provides another avenue to communicate the emotion of the piece. Originally workshopped with the women in a village hall, with just a piano, the score maintains a simplicity suited to the story, but in its orchestrations, transforms it into a bona fide musical. The lyrics are just as pithy and poignant as the original script and the continuity of Tim Firth as writer through all these stages of development is central to maintaining that well loved tone. Like the women themselves, the musical ‘trumpets life’ like a sunflower, and is sure to keep this moving story following the sun for years to come.

Calendar Girls runs at Nottingham Theatre Royal 25 June to 6 July 2019.

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