The Girls

Gary Barlow and Tim Firth Based on the motion picture Calendar Girls
Phoenix Theatre

LtoR Claire Machin, Sophie-Louise Dann, Joanna Riding, Claire Moore and Debbie Chazen Credit: Matt Crockett
James Gaddas as John and Joanna Riding as Annie Credit: Matt Crockett
Claire Moore as Chris and Joanna Riding as Annie Credit: Matt Crockett

Former Take That and X Factor favourite Gary Barlow is really coming into his own as a musical theatre composer, having already delivered Broadway hit Finding Neverland.

His score, in concert with Tim Firth, is the best thing about this re-working of the latter's film script that became a straight play about a group of plucky Yorkshirewomen who became legendary for the most unlikely reason.

The Knapeley Women's Institute is so stuck in the mud that it comes as a surprise that any of its members is still sentient. Pleasingly, the original group's fundraising live wires were present in force on opening night, recognisable by their sporting of the musical's motif, the sunflower.

The early scenes follow a series of dull but reasonably happy lives in the Yorkshire Dales, particularly focussing on Annie and her lovely husband, John or Clarkey, respectively played by Joanna Riding and James Gaddas.

Tragedy strikes when John is diagnosed with terminal leukaemia and the rest is now history (with a good dose of mythology by the time the story reached the musical stage, one might surmise).

The first half of the evening features some cracking songs, opening with the rousing "Yorkshire", soon followed by the deeply moving "Scarborough", delivered by the star of the evening Miss Riding, and then a jazzy delight as Claire Machin's Cora gets everyone on stage and off bopping to "Who Wants a Silent Night?".

The music is so good that the thinness of the plot, albeit based on a moving true story, can be forgotten, a large number of jokes helping to warm up the audience along the way.

After John's passing, it is Claire Moore as ditzy Chris, peaking with "Dare", who has the first lightbulb moment of her life and proposes a nude (the terminology is important) WI Calendar. Instantly history beckons, as long as the staid women of the Institute can be persuaded (and are permitted by their conference) to disrobe and take part in a charitable exercise to memorialise Clarkey.

The second half follows the highs and lows of The Girls as they contemplate their fifteen minutes of fame, with high angst fighting high comedy until the inevitable conclusion.

In many ways, The Girls says little more than Calendar Girls on stage or screen. The plot is very much the same and can drag a little, given that every visitor will know on arrival what to expect 2½ hours later.

The difference therefore lies in a series of songs in two main styles, powerful and poignant, which by the end of the night give all of the key players a big solo. In doing so, they showcase the talents and tonsils of not only the aforementioned trio but also Sophie Louise Dann is artificially enlarged Celia, Debbie Chazen playing disappointed, nervous Ruth and Michelle Dotrice, still fondly remembered for her appearances in Some Mothers do 'ave Em, portraying ageing, liberated schoolteacher Jessie.

The Girls is ridiculously sentimental but with enough pathos to bring a tear to the eye, particularly in a glorious final sunflowery flourish. It is also funny at times and can be uplifting. Time will tell whether this new musical has what it takes for a long West End run but with its pedigree as a film and play enhanced by the reputation and talents of Gary Barlow, it might just get there.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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