In 1999 a Yorkshire Women’s Institute posed nude for a calendar to raise money in memory of a husband who died of cancer. It was a rare moment of uplifting news, which happily captured the world’s imagination and has since raised more than £5 million for Bloodwise leukaemia charity. You’d have to be a hollow husk of a human not to be moved by the extraordinary impact of these ‘ordinary’ women.
The tale of the Calendar Girls (as they were named) continued to delight in Tim Firth’s film and stage adaptation. Now Firth has teamed up with pop-star Gary Barlow to add feel-good songs and make the story into a full-blown musical.
The result is unsurprisingly heavy on hearty laughter, broad smiles and happy tears. Performances all round are superb - with a fizzing chemistry between Joanna Riding as quietly resourceful Annie and Claire Moore as her rebellious best friend Chris. It's refreshing to have a stage dominated by middle-aged women, with meaty, multifaceted roles. (Though how predictable and disappointing to see an entirely white cast).
While the film encompassed the furore triggered by the ladies' nudity, the musical zooms in on the seeds and sprouts of the idea. The daily rhythms of this Northern village are conveyed with copious cosy charm. It’s complemented by Robert Jones’s set – a thoughtful blend of home and country, marrying the domestic and pastoral with piled up cabinets creating the undulating Yorkshire.
Barlow draws on the sheer normality that makes this story remarkable with a sweet and witty songbook. Most memorable are the chipper ensemble number chronicling ‘one more year in Yorkshire’ and a hilarious plea from a lovelorn teenage boy ('she's been all the way to Waterloo/ While I've only been as far as Crewe', he bemoans). There's also a gentle dignity in the portrayal of terminal illness and bereavement: the struggle of supporting a spouse through cancer treatment is explored through the comfort of routine ‘Then we’ll go to Tesco/ I’ll send you to get get the margarine’; then the loneliness of widowhood is played out in a song championing the bravery of carrying on.
What’s missing is a soaring standout song - something to get stuck in your head. The new show-tunes are nice enough, but the overall effect is more hygge that hit.
What will make The Girls a hit (and there's no doubt it will be) is the same thing that made the world's press suddenly pay attention to ten ladies in a small Yorkshire village: it's the well-behaved women breaking the mould to make history.
And that is certainly something worth singing about.
|What||The Girls, Phoenix Theatre review|
|Where||Phoenix Theatre, 110 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0JP | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Tottenham Court Road (underground)|
28 Jan 17 – 15 Jul 17, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£25 - £69.50|
|Website||Click here to book tickets|