“Find the rules you knew and break them, / Find the roads you knew, don’t take them,” goes a line in Dare, one of the songs in The Girls. And that’s exactly what this new, all-British musical version of the 2003 film Calendar Girls also dares to do.
It celebrates as well as commemorates a true story of a spectacular example of quiet English heroism as a group of middle-aged WI members in Yorkshire, of all shapes and sizes, threw their inhibitions to the wind to create a nude community calendar that was sold to raise funds for a memorial for the recently deceased husband of one of them.
Like Billy Elliot, it stays faithful to its sense of time and place, but also deepens and amplifies the sense of intimate connection to the audience with a series of instantly catchy and moving songs, co-written by the film’s original co-screenwriter Tim Firth, newly joined by pop songwriter and performer Gary Barlow.
There’s an authenticity rooted in both shows that comes from the involvement of the original creators: Firth is back on board here, also directing the show. The addition of a contemporary pop voice – Elton John for Billy Elliot, Barlow for The Girls – and the pairing of them with established theatre talents is also a canny choice, as they mutually enrich one another.
Firth, a sometime collaborator with Willy Russell, has also inherited Russell’s great gift for populism. This show follows in the footsteps of the latter’s Blood Brothers to tell a story that feels honest, raw and powerful.
These women are determined to make a difference – and so is this show. It puts that most unsung of constituencies – middle-aged women (ironically a huge part of the theatre ticket buying population) and hands them the microphone. It really is extraordinary to see such a spectacular line-up of West End talents blooming, just like the sunflowers that form the central motif to this show’s publicity and onstage design, and holding the stage so compellingly yet utterly sympathetically.
There’s a hauntingly beautiful and radiantly lovely performance from Joanna Riding, who we see becoming widowed as her husband John (James Gaddas) succumbs to cancer, and she is gloriously partnered by Claire Moore, as her best friend Chris, a woman with an effervescent practicality.
But every single one of the troupe of women who shed their clothes is warm-hearted in their naked disinhibition, And unlike The Full Monty – another show transposed to both a stage play and musical after the success of an original film – there’s a much bigger nudity pay-off here that fills the heart and theatre with sheer joy. The result is the biggest British musical hit since Billy Elliot.