- United Kingdom Theatre Critic
The unforgettable, moving story of a group of members from one of the Women’s Institute’s Yorkshire branches has been inspiring viewers, and more recently audiences, for over fifteen years. I am of course talking about the story of Calendar Girls, which found life and widespread attention and success in the form of Nigel Cole’s 2003 film, with a screenplay by Tim Firth. In 2008, the film was adapted into a successful film, and ten years on, it’s found its way back onto the stage, this time in the form of a musical. With Firth returning to his work, the writer paired up with Gary Barlow to bring the vibrant story of the triumphant women to a theatre at the heart of Yorkshire: the Leeds Grand Theatre.
In case you’re not already familiar with it, Calendar Girls brings us to the sprawling Yorkshire Moors and follows the story of Annie (Anna-Jane Casey), a member of the local Women’s Institute and loving wife to John (Phil Corbitt). Her life takes a dramatic turn, however, when John is diagnosed with leukemia, and when he sadly passes away, she does her best to uphold her inherent Yorkshire determination with the support of her friends in the WI. Its members include the steadfast Celia (Denise Welch), mousey Ruth (Sara Crowe), Cora (Karen Dunbar), Jessie (Ruth Madoc) and her best friend Chris (Rebecca Storm). Compelled to give back to her community and raise money for research against the condition that took her husband’s life, Annie asks her comrades, much to the disapproval of branch organiser Marie (Fern Britton), if they’d be up for posing for a nude calendar to raise money for a new sofa at the hospital where John received treatment.
I’m always interested to see how musical adaptations forge a story into a piece that adds to the legacy of the original narrative and the source text, and it’s safe to say that this new adaptation of Calendar Girls has certainly – and in an incredibly innovative and stylish fashion – added to the legacy of the iconic story. Right from the musical’s opening number, there’s a beautiful, Willy Russell-esque poeticism and sense of musicality in Barlow and Firth’s aural landscape.
The songs perfectly capture the essence of how characters feel and respond to situations, and each song maintains a sense of individuality that allows us to appreciate the diverse patchwork quilt of characters and their identities. In musicals of the past, there can be a sense of superficiality and a song for the sake of a song, but in Firth and Barlow’s Calendar Girls, the story-driven musical, indeed and especially harking back to Russell’s hit Blood Brothers for the way it captures the local accent and lyricism of the dialect in the delivery of its songs, is sensitive and genuine from start to finish.
The ensemble cast soar amidst the shared positive energy that comes from telling such a powerful, heart-warming story, with each performer striking a chord with the intricate details of the characters and providing us with trustworthy traveling companions with which to embark on this moving journey. They command the space with grace and a gentle-but-firm sense of presence and uphold a sense of clarity throughout their storytelling duties that let's us hear the gorgeous soundtrack and developments in the narrative with ease and pure joy. Their energy never wavers and the drive present in each of the performers is infectious and engaging, with that all important sense of truth and the transformative power of music and song always being held close to their hearts.
Robert Jones’ set design, providing the backdrop to the cast and director Matt Ryan’s efforts, is one of my favourite sets that I’ve seen this year. It’s a simple, stylish evocation of the Yorkshire moors, capturing the breathtaking sense of space one can only find in God’s Own County and making economical, clever use of the stage space to allow the cast to perfectly inhabit the story they’re telling and allow the other scenographic elements – including Oliver Fenwick’s slick lighting design and Nick Lidster’s driving sound design – to breathe and take flight in the Grand’s ornately cavernous auditorium.
It’s in that very auditorium that you can find and feel the magic of this beautiful, inspiring and engaging new musical. Calendar Girls really is a gem to behold, and a fitting way to continue telling the story of a very inspiring group of exceptional women. It’s one of the most incredible and breathtaking musicals you’ll see all year.
Calendar Girls the Musical is at the Leeds Grand Theatre until 1st September. For more information and tickets visit here. This was a review of an invited dress rehearsal.