Theatre Review: Calendar Girls – The Musical

Storm Jocelyn rolled into town along with the Calendar Girls last night, bringing some much needed sunshine to the January malaise

I’m fond of talking about the weather at opening nights at the Winter Gardens. Last night you couldn’t really ignore it, as Storm Jocelyn rolled into town at the same time as the late Bill Kenwright’s musical adaptation of Calendar Girls. In contrasting ways the weather and the production made an impact on those who made the effort to make their way to the Opera House.

It’s kind of hard to remember that twenty years ago ‘respectable women’ of a Women’s Institute branch doing a tasteful nude calendar was rather notorious. The idea of using a revealing but not overly provocative group of pictures from January to December has become a popular fundraiser for all manner of good courses. This week the BBC ran a story about how cancer survivors empowered themselves by doing one. But back in the day it was sufficiently novel topic for a classically British comedy film to be made starring, among others, Helen Mirren, Julie Walters and Penelope Wilton.

Photos: Jack Merriman

Calendar Girls – The Musical has original songs written by Gary Barlow. Anyone who enjoys his music will find them absorbing. I’m not a Take That devotee but I thought they landed well. My personal favourite was a somewhat inebriated salute to the properties of vodka, My Russian Friend and I, but maybe that says more about me than the inherent quality of the number. All of the cast held a note very well, and a couple of them clearly had very strong singing voices though the nature of most of the numbers isn’t power ballad. It was announced that on the night one of the roles was to be filled by an understudy. It’s testimony to the strength of the cast that you really wouldn’t have know that if you hadn’t been informed beforehand.

It deals with the same issues as the film – cancer, bereavement, body image, strained friendships – but it’s just a bit more upbeat and feel good.

It’s some time since I watched the film but my recollection of Calendar Girls was that although it was undoubtedly a comedy, there was rather a lot of pathos as well, and at times it almost dwelled on that a little too much before it jumps the shark a little with a publicity tour by the ladies to the USA. Calendar Girls – The Musical is undoubtedly lighter in tone. It deals with the same issues as the film – cancer, bereavement, body image, strained friendships – but it’s just a bit more upbeat and feel good.

The core of the action takes place in the community centre where the Women’s Institute branch the ladies are members of meets. In terms of sets it’s a pretty low-tech affair. When the action takes place in a hospital ward signs descend, when some of the ladies head to the national WI conference it’s road signs and the main character holds a steering wheel to show they are now in an imaginary car. This works just fine as it’s a close-knit piece about sisterhood, feeling the fear and doing it anyway – just don’t expect stunning special effects.

In the depths of January with Isha then Jocelyn taking it in turns to cause havoc as well as the general post-Christmas malaise, there is a key place in theatre schedules for feel good nights of escapism. Notwithstanding the fact that it’s grounded in tragedy, Calendar Girls follows The Full Monty in filling that winter entertainment brief. Not because it’s about nudity (though clearly it is) but because it’s about camaraderie and overcoming the adversity that can impact on northern communities and the world in general. There was a standing ovation at the end – get to the Winter Gardens before Sunday and enjoy it for yourself.

Book tickets for Calendar Girls – The Musical here

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