Twelve years after its release as a film, and seven years since its debut as a stage play, writer Tim Firth has turned Calendar Girls into a musical with Take That’s Gary Barlow. Except this time it’s just called The Girls.
Quite why the calendar part has been dropped is anyone’s guess (you’d have thought it would be more instantly recognisable to paying audiences), but what Firth and Barlow have created together is an evening of pure theatrical joy, as moving and tender as it is funny and entertaining.
The story is known to most – Yorkshire lass Annie (a stunning Joanna Riding) loses husband John (James Gaddas) to cancer. Her Women’s Institute friends rally round to find a way to pay tribute to the man they all loved and decide on a nude calendar. The profits will buy a couch for the hospital that cared for John, and their journey to the moment of derobing in turn forces each of the women to assess their own relationships and inner conflicts.
It’s not the deepest of scripts – for the most part it’s light and frothy – but Firth keeps the pace moving and the audience’s emotions changing. Just as you’re wiping tears from your eyes as you watch Annie coming to terms with her imminent loss in a hospital ward, you’re laughing at best friend Chris (a brilliant and ballsy Claire Moore), who steals a wheelchair and boasts, “You have no idea how quickly I just got served.”
The laughs, in fact, come thick and fast. The song’s lyrics are simple, but genuinely funny, whether they’re referring to shopping at Tesco, or being sung by teenagers reflecting on the damage inflicted on them by their parents. “Look in the eye, of your dear fucker upper,” one of them sings. It’s brilliant.
Barlow’s music isn’t the star here, but it ably serves the piece. There are some lovely melodies, but each song seems an extension of the script, making this show more a play with songs than a traditional musical.
Designer Robert Jones has created a striking set, with drawers, cupboards and cabinets painted green and stacked on top of each other so that they can be climbed to create a hill (such as when John finally succumbs to cancer) or opened to provide entrances and exits. There’s a wonderful scene when a Morris Minor appears as the girls sing one of the show’s standout numbers, Dare.
And each of the cast is superb, with special mention due to Ben Hunter as Chris’s son Danny, who makes an impressive professional debut. Ultimately, however, this is Moore and Riding’s show. Both shine.
Producers have opened The Girls in Yorkshire, where the show is set, and the audience on the night I attended embraced this local story. But The Girls’ appeal is such that a West End transfer has to be on the cards. The play took nearly £35 million at the box office. It’s not hard to imagine this musical topping that.