Calendar Girls the Musical

Gary Barlow and Tim Firth
David Pugh, Dafydd Rogers and The Shubert Organisation
Sunderland Empire

Tim Firth and Gary Barlow with the Calendar Girls
Rebecca Storm, Fern Britton, Anna-Jane Casey, Sara Crowe, Ruth Madoc, Karen Dunbar & Denise Welch Credit: Matt Crockett

The Calendar Girls story is truly a phenomenon. It started as a true story of some Yorkshire WI members posing nude for a calendar, became a worldwide news story—well, it would, wouldn’t it? the WI and nudity don’t really go together—was made into a film, became a stage play and now it’s a musical. And something which they hoped would raise enough money to buy a sofa for a hospital’s family room has now raised millions for Leukaemia research.

I have to admit that I haven’t seen the film but I did see the play back in 2010 at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal where I found it entertaining, funny and occasionally moving but thought that the second half was a trifle overlong—“padded out” were the words I used. So I was unsure: was this going to be a case of songs replacing (or even adding to) padding? And did I really want another dose of the somewhat saccharin emotional appeal?

But actually this is not the same show. The plot, of course, remains the same but the whole thing has been tightened up; it has been rewritten and there are new characters bringing in a whole new subplot; a specialist in comedy staging, Jos Houben who was a member of Complicité, collaborated with The Right Size and currently teaches at the École Jacques Lecoq, has been brought in to build the photography scene to heights of hilarity not seen previously and the songs really do add something to the piece, many based on a facet of the individual women’s characters. Ruth’s (Sara Crowe) "My Russian Friend and I" (based on her relationship with vodka!) is a perfect—and very funny—example.

The new subplot introduces us to the younger generation—sixth-formers Jenny (Isabel Caswell), Tommo (Tyler Dobbs) and Danny (Danny Howker)—whose presence not only provides an additional source of humour but also, by letting us see more of the domestic lives of the women (parent-child relationships are always revealing!), gives them greater depth.

The women are played by Anna-Jane Casey (Annie), Sara Crowe (Ruth), Karen Dunbar (Cora), Pauline Daniels (Jessie), Nikki Gerard (Marie), Rebecca Storm (Chris) and Denise Welch (Celia) and, as you would expect, a cast of this calibre really does deliver the goods. Their supporting team of eleven (especially Phil Corbitt as John, whose untimely death from leukaemia prompts the calendar idea in the first place) are equally convincing and Matt Ryan’s direction keeps the pace just right.

And as for the set—a beautiful recreation of a Yorkshire Dales landscape which changes almost imperceptibly when necessary and a single branch of a tree which is flown in occasionally to change the whole character of the scene—and the lighting, constantly changing just like the Dales sky, I could spent a long time just watching them! Beautiful work from Robert Jones (designer) and Oliver Fenwick (lighting).

I’m glad I did go; this is a deeper, less sentimental and visually much more impressive version of the well-known story, and the music does add a great deal.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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