Phoenix Theatre, London – until 15 July 2017
“There is nothing in Nepal more scary than the step from the kitchen to the hall.”
So having not gotten round to seeing The Girls for whatever reason (mainly that I didn’t want to), I finally bit the bullet last week and within 24 hours, the show posted closing notices for its West End run. The Girls will then head out on a two year national tour from August 2018, aiming to visit 42 theatres across the UK and if that does perhaps seem a little ambitious, it is hard to shake the feeling that the musical might be more suited out on the road.
Gary Barlow and Tim Firth‘s show started life in “the regions” – I saw it in Leeds and my family saw it in Manchester – and away from the cut-throat economics of the West End, it may well thrive again. The instant recognition of the Calendar Girls story has a different currency when there’s only a week’s worth of performances to sell; one gets the sense that the maxim about familiarity breeding contempt may have come into play at the Phoenix.
The Girls is cosy and gentle, undoubtedly moving but deeply conventional. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing but it does mean that there’s not a jot of a surprise about a production of a story which, as already established, is already well-known. It shows in the slow pacing of a first half that consists of an awful lot of scene-setting, in sitcom-level humour and retrogressive gender politics, hell, even in the fact of the persistent use of ‘girls’.
For these are women, older women at that, taking the limelight for once. And as the second half clicks into wonderful gear, the likes of Joanna Riding and Claire Moore, Claire Machin and Sophie-Louise Dann are glorious in their blossoming out, but not entirely away from, the bittersweet realities of life, much like the sunflowers strewn across Robert Jones’ set in the inspired finale. Ben Hunter is good value for money too as head-boy-in-the-making Danny.
But if Riding elevates her solo moments like ‘Scarborough’ and ‘Kilimanjaro’ with some tangible interpretative skill, the score too often feels solid rather than spectacular, which by and large is how I felt about the whole show, once again.