Calendar Girls The Musical
Gary Barlow and Tim Firth
David Pugh, Dafydd Rogers and The Shubert Organisation
The Lowry, Salford
Calendar Girls, the real-life story of the members of the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute who posed nude for a calendar to raise funds for a local hospital, has already inspired a film and a play and is now the subject of a musical.
The eccentric nature of the story makes it a uniquely British tale with the aspect of a group of ordinary women simply getting on with sorting out a problem adding a distinctly northern texture. Of course the central joke is that these are nice polite people who don’t do that sort of thing and the lush Yorkshire landscape captured in Robert Jones’s set establishes a strong sense of a community that will work together no matter how eccentric the idea.
Annie (Salford born Anna-Jane Casey) is grief-stricken when her husband passes away early. She resolves to raise funds to buy a sofa for the visitor’s room at the hospital where he was treated. Her daredevil friend Chris (Rebecca Storm) suggests they emulate the saucy calendars by Pirelli and, together with other members of the local Women’s Institute (WI), pose nude while undertaking typical WI tasks like making cakes and jam. The suggestion causes some discomfort for their friends not to mention their families.
Tim Firth, who wrote the original screenplay and adapted it for the stage, returns to scripting duties for the musical along with musician Gary Barlow. An issue that arises when adapting an established work into a musical is that adding songs makes for a bloated over-long show. Firth avoids this tendency by re-cycling dialogue into lyrics. Thus, conversations from the film and play where the characters set out their motivations for joining the WI form the basis for the song "Mrs Conventional".
Firth and Barlow take a respectful approach to the background of the musical and are determined that it should not trivialise the subject matter. As a result, the first act, with gentle piano and brass score and introspective lyrics, has a distinctly melancholy atmosphere. The humour in the first act is understated and mainly arises out of the embarrassment of characters who acknowledge that nudity in their marriages has been on a ‘need to know’ basis. The dialogue, however, remains sparkling with randy teenage boys hopefully reflecting that the sex drives of middle-aged women have been re-tarmacked.
The comedy aspect of the musical comes late in the show but is well worth the wait. In addition to Matt Ryan as director, Jos Houben is credited with comedy staging which, one imagines, relates to the staging of the photo-shoot for the calendar. It is a marvellously funny sequence growing more absurd as the characters adopt increasing bizarre poses. The audience roars approval at the daring of the cast being willing to risk baring all. The sequence ends with a completely over the top Christmas cracker gag that brings the house down.
Calendar Girls The Musical is a rousing success although one hopes that the producers will feel enough is enough and not be tempted to further re-cycle as a ballet or opera. The cast at The Lowry get a well-deserved ovation but are up-staged by a surprise appearance by the original Calendar Girls from the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute—which is just as it should be.