Review By Caroline Hanks-Farmer
People will be familiar with the original Calendar Girls true story, which this new British musical comedy is based. In 1998 a husband of one of the wives in a WI branch in Yorkshire was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The close-knit picture postcard village was rocked by this devastating news. They rallied to support John, his wife Angela and their family. Just five months after diagnosis John lost his fight with this terrible disease and passed away.
What happens next is the story of ‘The Girls’. A group of women who simply want to raise money to replace the oncology visitors lounge couch, in their local hospital. Far surpassing this goal, they have to date raised over five million pounds. And a proportion of the profits of this production will also be donated to the Bloodwise Charity.
I know the play extremely well and so I was interested to see if this musical adaptation would detract from the potency. I would say that this is not a musical but rather a play with music. It compliments and was unobtrusive. In fact so much so, I thought that there weren’t any stand out melodies. However hours later I realised I was still humming the songs.
The Gary Barlow influences can definitely be heard however subtle they may be. It does feel delightfully musical theatre, rather than popular music in genre. A sense of pride and strength of character are demonstrated in the opening number Yorkshire – a sentiment that carries throughout this production. Other striking and powerful numbers are Scarborough, Sunflower, Kilimanjaro and For One Night Only.
Joanna Riding as Annie takes you on a journey of hope, grief and inspiration. Her forty-year old friendship with Chris (Claire Moore) demonstrates, that if people believe in one goal, anything can be possible as a result. Celia fabulously played by Sophie-Louise Dann. Dann outwardly oozes self-confidence by “having a little work done” but actually just seeks acceptance. The legendary Michele Dotrice as Jessie, really makes you want to shout ‘age is but a number’. Her comic delivery of the killer one lines is spot on. Typically so, as one would expect in someone of this acting calibre.
The poignancy of this piece has not been diluted. Clearly evidenced in the heart wrenching scenes of John’s (James Gaddas) final days skilfully acted by Riding and Gaddas.
Other noteworthy mentions must go to Debbie Chazen (Ruth) who plays naivety well. Steve Giles as porter and photographer Lawrence. Claire Machin as Cora. And finally Ben Hunter (Danny) and Chloe May Jackson (Jenny).
In summary whilst the first act did seem to lack pace on occasion, the second more than made up for it. Poignant and inspiring, this beautiful story restores your faith in community spirit. Its drive and stoic resilience to achieve a common goal evidenced. This dreadful disease, which touches everyone continues to need funds for research.
My utmost respect goes to the original Calendar Girls. And to the real women who now portray them so well. Superb casting, means this stellar cast are splendidly united throughout. Beautifully underscored by both Barlow’s music and Firth’s writing and direction.