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New Theatre, Oxford

Gary Barlow and Tim Firth have created a touching and charming adaptation of the famous film. On stage the basic plot and the theme of women of a certain age asserting both their independence of mind and their femininity still holds together strongly, and there is a greater emphasis on the life and morals of a community in Yorkshire that gives the story an extra jolt of poignancy.

The physical aspects of the production are very fine. I like the sets and costumes, the fluidity of the scene changes, and the evocation of Yorkshire. The cast inhabited every one of the roles with warmth and conviction and the ensemble playing really did make one believe that this was a community that had lived with each other for a long time. Fern Britton as the newest arrival and perhaps the most Puritanical of the women, was as striking as all the others in the cast, especially Anna-Jane Casey as the bereaved yet feisty Annie, Sara Crowe as a slightly dippy but ultimately brave Ruth, Rebecca Storm as a delightfully cheeky Chris and Nikki Gerard standing in for Karen Dunbar as Cora. I was also delighted by the work of Pauline Daniels and Denise Welch.

There is not a weak link in the cast, including the men, starting with Phil Corbitt as John and Sebastian Abineri as Colin. Though this story is really about female empowerment and even a bit of rebellion, the relationships with their men are winningly portrayed. And then there is the rather fine use of the songs to concentrate your mind on each character’s inner self. What I liked the most is that the music was not overwhelming or forced, that the microphones were not turned up to top volume. Indeed, the range of the music sets the mood and range of the show beautifully with its reliance on piano and guitar at its core, and with lots of lyrical songs. All the cast sang well, and all the songs had a point to make. The music itself had a kind of continuous, mostly gentle, flow and the lyrics are outstanding and always informative and apt.

If you liked the film, the musical is not only a reworking of the original material for live presentation but also a kind of amplification of aspects of it. If you’ve never seen the film, the musical makes perfect sense as a story on its own. The first act very much establishes the community and the tale that leads to the ladies wanting to raise money for a cancer facility; and the second half takes off splendidly and at time hilariously. The sequence of the shooting of the nude calendar is cleverly staged and worth the effort of going to the theatre all by itself. At the curtain call, the cast got a standing ovation. It was deserved.

  • Musical
  • By Gary Barlow and Tim Firth
  • Directed by Matt Ryan
  • Based on the Motion Picture written by Tim Firth and Juliette Towhidi
  • Cast includes: Gern Britton, Anna-Jane Casey, Sara Crowe, Karen Dunbar, Pauline Daniels, Sebastian Abineri, Phil Corbitt, Isabel Caswell, Nikki Gerard
  • New Theatre, Oxford
  • In Oxford until 20th April and then touring until November 2019

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Canadian-born Mel Cooper first came to the UK to study English Literature at Oxford University and stayed. He was captivated by the culture and history of Britain, which he found to be a welcoming and tolerant country. After working in highly illustrated, non-fiction publishing for over a decade, he founded and edited the magazine Opera Now. Since then he has worked as a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting, a maker of audio shows and arts critic for several airlines, and as one of the team that started Britain’s first commercial classical music radio station, Classic FM, on which he was both a classical music DJ and creator and presenter of shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. Throughout this period, he also lectured in music and literature in London and Oxford and published short stories in Canada. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature. His first novel has just been published as an e-book. The title is City of Dreams. It is the first volume of a projected saga called The Dream Bearers. You can find the Kindle version of the book on Amazon.

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