In the Yorkshire village of Knapely live an extraordinary group of women. Wives, mothers, members of the local WI…not so extraordinary you might say. But every woman has a story to tell…right?
Calendar Girls written by Tim Firth, with music and lyrics by Gary Barlow gives a heart-warming and realistic glimpse into the true-life ladies who, in order to raise money for a hospital waiting room couch, raised enough money for an entire wing by posing naked for a calendar. Yes – you heard right! The ladies of the WI, those jam makers, and cake bakers, and knitters and makrami learners get their baps and bums out and it is cracking!
The curtains opens on what I can only describe as a friendly set with rolling green hills, a blue sky and the sun blaring down on the pastoral scene – this is Yorkshire! The set, with it’s folding flats to distinguish inside from out, is well designed and showcases the expanse of the Loughborough Town Hall Stage. Some of the most poignant moments are played out centre stage with a stunning twilight lighting, using simple spot for emphasis. Coupled together, the set and lighting really help to take the audience on an emotional rollercoaster, particularly in Act 1 as the motivation for the nudie calendar is presented. Unlike the 2003 film version of this story, where the ladies bare all relatively early on, this musical focuses on the lead up to the photoshoot, with the creation of the calendar being the climax just before the bows. Absolute respect to all of the ladies who disrobe in this production – the placement of the props, often representing more typical WI activities, is inspired and brings many a guffaw from the audience as they whoop and cheer at each lady’s stunning pose. The audience are completely behind these actresses, admiring their courage and gusto. Bravo ladies!
This musical, however, is much more than the “in the buff” scene for which it is famous; it is a tale of community which is presented well by the Director with lots of movement on the stage and many a hilarious exchange. John Clarke (Mark Chinnery) opens the musical with an echoing a cappella before the stage is engulfed with activity. Chinnery plays the likeable and full-of-beans John with a real sensitivity as the leukaemia starts to take hold of him. Following his death, his wife Annie (Lianne Marie), has to learn to live without her beloved “Clarkie” with the support of her WI friends. Some of the most moving solos are Marie’s and when her voice breaks with emotion in “Time Passing”, the audience can keenly feel everything that Marie is giving to the ballad.
Annie’s best friend, Chris (Alex Ashurst) is a force to be reckoned with. Fiercely loyal and full of “stupid ideas”, it is Chris’ idea to create the calendar. Ashurst is wonderful. She powers onto the stage and powers up the stage whenever she is on it, but also shows a fragility in Chris’ concern over her pubescent son and her grieving friend. Ashurst is able to show her range in this role and also her powerful singing voice with some of the end notes held for so long that the audience gasp. The family life presented by Chris, Rod (Richard York) and Danny (Oliver Halford) is warm and comedic and shows contrast effectively during the split stage sequences where Annie is alone on the uncomfortable hospital sofa and the family carry on their lives at the flower shop. York, with his typical dad jokes, is a well needed supporting character, distracting from the pain of loss, and Halford delights as the virginal, Head Boy wannabe. Indeed “Protect Me Less” sung with Jenny (Jenny Pillbam) is one of the highlights for this reviewer. After the emotion of Act 1, watching two teens literally stick two fingers up at the world singing “do as I say not as I do” in response to parental control has the audience in stitches.
All of the WI main members are given their moment to tell their story, whether that’s glamourous Celia (Jo Dring), who’s so concerned that she doesn’t fit in with her husband’s golf buddies because of her former job – being an air hostess – and because they don’t like cleavage. Dring delivers her one liners with excellent comic timing; “Beautiful’s here” being an unforgettable line when she enters the stage for the photo shoot. Cora (Natalie Littlewood) worries that she’s not given her son the best start in life as a single mum and is somewhat repressed by being a vicar’s daughter, and Jesse (Kate King) is simply getting older, but her solo “What Age Expects” really resonates with a lot of the audience members as King sings every word from the heart. Marie (Linda Adlam), as the more traditional head of the WI, struggles with the idea of the calendar, but her character arc allows her to release her fear, and sweet Ruth (Joanna Hayes) has a hidden secret which is exposed in Act 2 as she emotionally sings “My Russian Friend and I”. Ruth finds strength she never knew she had, and watching her confidence at the end is joyful – this is what community and a stupid idea can do.
This performance is open night for LAOS’ production of Calendar Girls, and there were some first night nerves, which settled after the first couple of numbers. There were also some sound issues, whether that was missed mic cues or the band (who are fabulous) just being a little too loud and on occasion drowning out the singing on stage. Hopefully, as the run continues, these sound issues can be ironed out as it’s a shame to miss Gary Barlow’s lyrics which are being sung with such passion.
Calendar Girls is sentimental and moving, directed with sincerity and demonstrates the strength within us all to overcome our own fears and foibles. We are (in a tongue in cheek fashion) told in Calendar Girls that it is a woman’s lot to “endure boredom with dignity”. Well, these ladies proved the opposite – maybe we should all learn at little from this musical and discard the boredom with indignity instead.
Calendar Girls will be baring all – body and soul – at Loughborough Town Hall until Saturday 10th September.