Following the 2003 film and a play, a musical version of Calendar Girls was the obvious next step for this true story about a group of Yorkshire WI members who decide to pose for a nude calendar to raise money for a hospital sofa after one of them loses her husband to leukaemia.
It’s a story of salt-of-the-earth folk that just stays the right side of caricature and the humour is a gentle mix of the observational and good old British sauce. Let’s face it, you can never go wrong with a phallic vegetable. It’s good to see a show with a cast made up of more mature women and when we finally get to the shooting of the calendar, it’s all handled in the best possible taste and played with panache, courage and dignity.
At the show’s centre are nicely judged performances from Joanna Riding as the widowed Annie and Claire Moore as her feisty friend Chris who comes up with the idea for the calendar. They receive fine support from the other “girls”, including Sophie-Louise Dann and Michele Dotrice as the wife of the golf club captain and the retired village schoolteacher respectively.
It’s written and directed by Tim Firth, who also penned the film and the subsequent play, with an original score by Gary Barlow. The hard-hearted might feel that making a musical version is draining a great story of every last drop, but structurally the show is quite different from the movie. Here, stripping for the photoshoot becomes the climax, whereas the film went further and dealt with the publicity the women’s venture generated.
Because we know where the story is heading, the first act, while charming and nicely played, does at times feel a bit like treading water. The idea for the calendar doesn’t come until the last moment before the interval. The second act is a much perkier affair as the cast really have something to get their teeth into. The pace quickens and the jokes hit the mark.
Firth doesn’t take any ground-breaking chances with his direction and the production is all the better for it because this is a show with enormous heart and the story doesn’t need bells and whistles to capture our emotions. That said, the moment of John’s passing is beautifully handled and a directorial masterstroke.
Barlow’s score soars and presses all the right buttons on standout and distinctly hummable songs Dare and Scarborough, but is mostly a functional accompaniment to Firth’s touching and often very funny lyrics.
In the end you’d have to be pretty cynical not to be moved and cheered by a show that makes no excuses for celebrating the human spirit and championing ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
The Girls is at Phoenix Theatre until 30 September 2017