Phoenix Theatre, London – until 15 July 2017
Make of it what you will, but in less than as many years, the West End has showcased two new British musicals both of which have been inspired by the true stories of naked women being presented in provocative tableaux.
While Mrs Henderson Presents may have been drawn from the Windmill Girls’ wartime titillating tonic, Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s The Girls is of a more classic vintage, savouring the sauce stirred up when the mostly mature membership of a northern branch of the WI (Women’s Institute) set out to raise funds for a local hospital by posing nude for a calendar.
The true story of the Rylstone & District WI is the stuff of modern-day legend, inspiring Firth to have previously scripted both its film and subsequent stage play treatment (each titled The Calendar Girls). But he and Barlow are two northern lads who’d grown up together and despite pursue differing career paths, had long harboured the dream of co-writing a show. It was to be Barlow’s mum who convinced them of The Calendar Girls’ tuneful potential.
Musicals are nothing if they do not explore the human condition – and The Girls pulses with a humanity that touches almost everyone in the audience. That it is written to be performed by predominantly older women – a casting bracket so often woefully overlooked in today’s industry – is a joy in itself. Even more impressively, in filling the show’s six featured roles, the producers have done well to assemble a troupe who represent the cream of their musical theatre generation.
Joanna Riding plays Annie whose husband John (James Gaddas) succumbs to cancer, sparking the fund-raising idea. Not just a remarkable, spine-tingling performance, Riding’s role, perhaps more than any other in the canon, is also that of playing everywoman on stage. Her song Kilimanjaro touching anyone who’s been bereaved and it is with the most understated pathos that she portrays the grief that is both her devastation and motivation. Her early career saw Riding garner Olivier awards and nominations by the handful. This powerhouse turn will likely see her nominated again. Alongside Riding is Claire Moore’s Chris, the feisty local florist whose idea the calendar is. Moore is another timeless West End star of remarkable pedigree who commands the stage.
Firth and Barlow’s songs have a sweet simplicity with an occasional touch of genius in the lyrics, their opening number Yorkshire, being a stirring tribute to the county’s rugged charm. There may be occasional moments of trite silliness in the wit, but these are more than made up for by the company’s sheer excellence.
Sophie-Louise Dann, herself an accomplished diva, is sensational as Celia, a retired stewardess, whose number So I’ve Had A Little Work Done is a spot-on paean to plastic surgery. Michele Dotrice’s elderly Jessie is similarly outstanding with her feisty, poignant rebuke to the advance of years, What Age Expects. Likewise, Debbie Chazen and Claire Machin bring their own characters’ anxieties to hilarious, even if at times painfully well-observed relief.
The supporting cast fill modest roles with an unassuming charm, Gaddas bringing a caring, nuanced stoicism to his decline that’s never mawkish. Likewise Josh Benson and Chloe May Jackson are a comic delight as teenage schoolkids, simultaneously discovering love and thwarting their mothers’ high-flying expectations.
Richard Beadle’s band infuses the hummable score with verve, while Robert Jones’ design, an ingenious confection of drawers and doors, outlines both the glorious majesty of the Yorkshire Dales with a cosy and well-worn intimacy of the local village hall.
Above all, the strength of this musical lies in how it is played by this wonderful cast. Against the darkest of backdrops, The Girls not only touches our hearts with its tragedy, it celebrates a self-deprecating yet very British resilience that squares up to adversity.
In what is a story for us all, The Girls makes for a magical night of musical theatre, performed to perfection.