Eight weeks into 2017, and I’m happy to say we have a new bona fide feel-good hit in the West End in the shape of The Girls, Tim Firth and Gary Barlow’s adaptation of Firth’s film, Calendar Girls.
It’s the inspiring story of the twelve members of the Rylstone & District WI who stripped for charity to raise money in memory of John Baker, an apparently fit and healthy man of 53 who was struck down and died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1998. The calendar they produced became a phenomenon, the film became a hit, and the total they raised for charity is currently in excess of five million pounds, and continues to grow.
The narrative of the film details how the women came to terms with the unexpected success of their undertaking, however, the focus of the storytelling here is more on the community the women are from – their husbands, families, and relationships with each other. As such, although the book of the show doesn’t function as a traditional musical should, because of the increased depth of characterisation and the sheer amount of female comedic talent on stage, it’s simply impossible not to be drawn in to the inspiring milieu.
The story revolves around two couples, Annie & John (Joanna Riding & James Gaddas), and Chris and Rod (Claire Moore & Joe Caffrey) and their son, Danny (Ben Hunter). John is the popular ranger in the local National Park, and Rod runs a florists with his wife, who has been friends with Annie since school.
When John becomes ill and eventually dies, Chris comes up with the idea of raising money to buy a new sofa for the hospital ward where he was treated by producing an artistically nude calendar. The women of the WI are roped in, and the fund-raising idea is a success. I make it sound rather sterile and worthy, but you’ll have to take my word for it that in Firth’s hands it’s a masterclass in nuanced balance and comedic writing.
Of the women, Joanna Riding has what most approximates to an ‘I Want’ song, in the poignant ‘Scarborough’, when her character sings of things they’ll miss – like going on holiday.
Sophie-Louise Dann’s Act Two number, ‘So, I’ve Had A Little Work Done’ details to great comedic effect what’s been tucked and lifted to give her the curves she enjoys flaunting down at the local golf club, of which her husband is secretary.
‘What Age Expects’, Michele Dotrice’s Act Two number about fighting the stereotypes which come with advancing years is a rousing chorus, and perhaps the most easily transferable song from the show, and even if Ms Dotrice doesn’t have the vocal capacity of other members of the cast, she acts it well.
The poignant ‘My Russian Friend and I’ from Debbie Chazen might not seem immediately appropriate, but has a delicious payoff during the actual calendar shoot.
There’s an extremely satisfying sub-plot between the younger characters concerning the antics of Chris and Rod’s son, Danny (newcomer Ben Hunter), and his priapic friend Tommo (Josh Benson), and the moment where Danny’s girlfriend, Jenny (Chloe May Jackson) explains why she wanted to join the WI is a genuine tearjerker.
Richard Beadle’s orchestrations ground us to place perfectly as well as helping Barlow’s music hang together as a score, and finally Robert Jones’ set and costumes are nothing short of beautiful.
This isn’t a show where you’ll necessarily come out humming the tunes, but I can’t think of a time recently when I’ve laughed and cried so much in an evening, and if not for that, what is theatre for?
- Director: Tim Firth
- Book: Tim Firth
- Music, & Lyrics: Gary Barlow & Tim Firth
- Cast includes: Joanna Riding, James Gaddas, Claire Moore, Joe Caffrey, Sophie-Louise Dann, Debbie Chazen, Michele Dotrice, Claire Machin, Marian McLoughlin, Ben Hunter, Josh Benson, and full supporting cast
- Phoenix Theatre, London
- Until 22 April 2017
- Review by Richard Voyce
- 23 February 2017