Wednesday 17 October 2018

Calendar Girls: the Musical

De Montfort Hall, Leicester

16th October, 2018

‘It’s Wednesday, I’m grieving!’

It’s a story that’s captured the hearts and minds of the nation; that of a small WI group that came up with a most risqué scheme to raise money in memory of a beloved husband and community member. Tasteful, humorous and brimming with good will, the famed ‘nude calendar’ (currant buns, knitting, teapots covering all the essentials) spawned a multitude of copycats and has become as iconically British as jam, ‘Jerusalem’ and Victoria Sponge. Tim Firth first breached the subject back in 2003 with the hugely successful film, followed by an even more successful play version, beloved on national stages and am-dram town halls alike. Now Firth has teamed up with Gary Barlow for a musical adaptation (initially premiering as The Girls, but now renamed after its more famous sister show). The result is a crowd pleasing, rousing and fun evening of theatre that’s not without its oddities.

Barlow’s music is as melodious and inoffensive as you’d expect, pulling off soaring leitmotifs and bouncy character numbers with a breeze afforded by nearly 30 years in the pop industry. Yet the greatest surprise in Calendar Girls is Barlow’s droll and often poignant lyrics. He writes in a way that illuminates the beauty, comfort, fear and joy of a distinctly British type of mundanity. Think bus stops, crossword puzzles and cups of tea. This is no more apparent than in the touching songs, ‘Scarborough’ and ‘Kilimanjaro’, in which protagonist, Annie (Anna-Jane Casey), contemplates life without her husband John, who is diagnosed with cancer early on in the musical. Barlow has a talent for simple honesty (no jokes about tax-evasion, now!), focusing on the small things that we perhaps don’t appreciate until they’re gone. Annie misses John most when thinking about shopping at Tesco, fishing by the seaside, making dinner for one, and the unbearable pain of climbing the stairs to bed alone. Firth and Barlow manage to portray the grieving process in a manner that avoids mawkishness, but is never flippant, despite the humour elsewhere in the show.

While I appreciate this exploration of loss and love in Calendar Girls the show is nevertheless full of padding and underdeveloped subplots. Each ‘girl’ gets her moment in the spotlight in a series of oddly truncated songs that either fail to move the plot along, or come completely out of the blue – a Christmas scene seems shoehorned into the narrative in order for Barlow to showcase a catchy tune he’s had earworming round his brain for the last decade, while ‘My Russian Friend and I’ is a puzzling eleventh hour interlude in an otherwise feel-good production (are we supposed to find Ruth’s alcoholism funny? Empowering? Tragic? The tone and lack of precedence is confusing to say the least). Conversely, I would question whether single mothers and plastic surgery are nowadays the controvercial subjects they’re presented as here. While the real ‘girls’ story took place in the late nineties, Firth’s decision to update the setting (selfies, Bake Off references) seems unnecessary and only emphasises the slightly outdated themes. I also could have done without the teenage subplot, which is a bit of a nonentity.

These niggles, however, melt away with the hearty triumph of the photoshoot scene. The abandonment felt and displayed by the women on stage ripples throughout the auditorium as the audience cheers them on. Here, director Matt Ryan comes into his own, as the sequence of tableaus materialise with precision, only to be subverted with the sheer fervour of the women.

The cast clearly love what they do, and with the uproarious reception they get, who can blame them? Ruth Madoc nearly blew the roof off with her ‘What Age Expects’, while Sara Crowe gets the majority of the laughs as the stiffly coy busybody, Ruth. Yet the outstanding moments belong to Casey as the grieving Annie, and Rebecca Storm as her brash best friend, Chris. Storm is a deft hand at both comedy and pathos and has a likeable phlegmatic air. Her chemistry with Casey ensures the women’s friendship is believable, while the duo’s singing showcases Barlow’s music splendidly.

It’s easy to be snobby about musicals such as this – film adaptation, pop star score – and, as I mentioned, the production isn’t without its problems, however, as a piece of enjoyable, light-hearted theatre, Firth and Barlow’s show is certainly a crowd pleaser. What’s more, to say the show is celebratory seems cliché, yet there’s no better description; Calendar Girls is an unashamed celebration of love, life, and community (and cake!).

Calendar Girls plays at De Montfort Hall, Leicester until 20th October, and continues to tour the UK.
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Tim Firth, Gary Barlow and the cast of Calendar Girls.
Credit: John Swanell.

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