Phoenix Theatre, London – until 15 July 2017
People will be familiar with the original Calendar Girls true story, which this new British musical comedy is based. In 1998 a husband of one of the wives in a WI branch in Yorkshire was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The close-knit picture postcard village was rocked by this devastating news. They rallied to support John, his wife Angela and their family. Just five months after diagnosis John lost his fight with this terrible disease and passed away.
What happens next is the story of ‘The Girls’. A group of women who simply wanted to raise money to replace a settee in the oncology visitors lounge of their local hospital. Instead they have to date raised over five million pounds. And a proportion of the profits of this production will also be donated to the Bloodwise Charity.
I know the play extremely well and so I was interested to see if this musical adaptation would detract from the potency. I would say that this is not a musical but rather a play with music. It compliments and was unobtrusive. In fact so much so I thought that there weren’t any stand out melodies. However hours later I realised I was still humming the songs.
The Gary Barlow influences can definitely be heard however subtle they may be. It does feel like musical theatre rather than popular music in genre. A sense of pride and strength of character are demonstrated in the opening number Yorkshire – a sentiment that carries throughout this production. Other striking and powerful numbers are Scarborough, Sunflower, Kilimanjaro and For One Night Only.
Joanna Riding as Annie takes you on a journey of hope, grief and inspiration. Her forty-year old friendship with Chris (Claire Moore) demonstrates, that if people believe in one goal, anything can be possible as a result. Celia fabulously played by Sophie-Louise Dann. Dann outwardly oozes self-confidence by “having a little work done” but actually just seeks acceptance. The legendary Michele Dotrice really makes you want to shout ‘age is but a number’. Her comic delivery of the killer one lines is spot on. Typically so, as one would expect in someone of this acting calibre.
The poignancy of this piece has not been diluted. Clearly evidenced in the heart wrenching scenes of John’s (James Gaddas) final days skilfully acted by Riding and Gaddas.
Other noteworthy mentions must go to Debbie Chazen (Ruth) who played being drunk very well. Steve Giles as porter and photographer Lawrence. Claire Machin as struggling single-mother Cora. And finally both Ben Hunter (Danny) and Chloe May Jackson as Jenny.
In summary whilst the first act did seem to lack pace on occasion, the second more than made up for it. Poignant and inspiring, this beautiful story restores your faith in community spirit. Its respect and stoic resilience to achieve a common goal. Barlow and Firth’s collaboration, is set to inspire future generations. And to raise funds for research to beat this terrible disease, which touches everyone’s lives.
My utmost respect goes to the original Calendar Girls and to these “girls” who portray them so well. The whole stellar cast are in splendid unity in this production. Beautifully underpinned by Barlow’s music.