Phoenix Theatre, London – until 15 July 2017
The Olivier Award nominated musical comedy version of The Girls by Tim Firth and Gary Barlow has been much anticipated this year and I’ve scarcely been able to contain my excitement about finally going to see it. Attending on a Saturday matinee a fair number of performances into the run meant that a few main cast members were having a well-earned break and there were understudies being given the opportunity to shine. This did not matter at all and personally, I feel privileged to have been able to have seen a different configuration.
Calendar Girls is well-known, if you’ve not seen the play version, you may have seen the movie or you might have just heard the story of the WI women who created a nude calendar to raise money for a sofa where Angela Baker’s late husband, John was treated for blood cancer. To date they have raised millions of pounds for Bloodwise, over-reaching their target in phenomenal style.
The set framed the action beautifully with the Yorkshire hills a prominent feature and the kitchen cupboards of all of the neighbourhood piled on top of the other. A simple roll on of a flower and ribbon-loaded cart changed the scene to Chris’s florists. Festive costumes and the florists’ van decked in Christmas décor was enough to suggest that it was Christmas Carol time even though the set was relatively unchanged. Likewise with that hotly anticipated (anticipated by Mari at least, played by Marian McLoughlin) WI conference – a few subtle changes shifted the action.
The musical numbers all tell their own story and each of the six main characters has at least one song and a moment to showcase their individual capabilities. Dare has been my all-time favourite since first hearing excerpts from the show, the lyrics mean something to every character “spread your wings and trust the air”, and the cast perform it with emotive power and verve. Yorkshire is an ideal opening number as it introduces the characters and sets the tone, simultaneously. Scarbourough is a heart-wrenching number, it reinforces the seriousness of the running theme.
Playing Annie (the incarnation of Angela written for the play/film) was understudy, Jenny Gayner. Had I not have known that Joanna Riding had been taking the role, I would not have known I was watching an understudy in action. She made the role her own and had terrific chemistry with Chris, played by Claire Moore. The juvenile element in their life-long friendship is highlighted in this piece and works well. True love is evident between Annie and John (James Gaddas) and forms the life-blood of the piece, I was so invested in their relationship that it felt like a body-blow when John inevitably passed away.
Debbie Chazen was extraordinarily excellent as Ruth, the downtrodden doctor’s receptionist who dotes on her husband Eddie, the husband we never see because he is playing away, and all of her friends know he is. I’ve only seen Chazen on screen before, so I was delighted with her stage presence and comic timing. Claire Machin plays Cora, the choir mistress trying to set a good example to her teenage son, Tommo (Josh Benson). She is a performer de force, rocking her big number at the carol concert and with the ability to bring a character to life from the inside out. Josh Benson was well matched as Cora’s son, not only in looks but there’s a believable bond there, too. I was already familiar with Sophie-Louise Dann’s as a performer and in Celia she has created a character who is bubbly on the surface and a fish out of water in reality. In fact The WI is where Celia feels that she fits, and I like the transition that Dann is able to walk the audience through step by step. Her big number is one of the highlights of the show. Michele Dotrice is an actress I have never seen on stage, before, wow am I inspired to see her on stage again. What an incredible comedienne she is and she can sing, too! An integral member of the cast indeed, nobody could have played Jesssie better than her, in my humble opinion. A mention must also go to Ben Hunter who plays Chris’s son, Daniel – he’s one to watch, a rising star if ever I saw one. Also, kudos to Victoria Blackburn who understudied the role of Mari’s daughter, Jenny – I was totally oblivious to the fact that I was watching the understudy.
The myriad of emotions that The Girls has the ability to evoke is quite something, tears, laughter – it’s like a proverbial yo-yo. This is the first time in a very long time that I wish I had more than five stars to give. Miss this at your peril, it’s a magnificent masterpiece that I intend on paying several return visits to see. Plus, fair play to all of the actresses who whipped off their kit and posed for the calendar, no mean feat!