The Girls, Phoenix Theatre, London, review: A fresh and joyous attempt to reinvent the material rather some tired rehash with songs

Take That’s Gary Barlow and dramatist Tim Firth teamed up to make the stage musical version of ‘Calendar Girls’, a new production that looks likely to stand the test of time

Paul Taylor
Tuesday 21 February 2017 14:30
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Claire Moore as Chris and Joanna Riding as Annie in 'The Girls' at the Phoenix Theatre
Claire Moore as Chris and Joanna Riding as Annie in 'The Girls' at the Phoenix Theatre

A cynic might say that it was always only a matter of time before we were treated to a musical version of Calendar Girls. But there is no covering up the fact that this show – a collaboration between Take That’s Gary Barlow and dramatist Tim Firth – is a fresh and joyous attempt to reinvent the material rather some tired rehash with songs.

Firth co-scripted the 2003 movie and wrote the 2009 stage play. So he could be forgiven if he'd fancied a bit of a rest from readapting the real-life story of those women in the Yorkshire Dales who raised a fortune for charity by stripping off and posing for a cheeky Women’s Institute calendar after one of them lost her husband to leukaemia. But this show, which Firth also directs, clearly demonstrates how energised he and Barlow have been by the challenge of a creating a musical makeover and by the real opportunities it affords for contributing something new to a familiar tale.

The Girls opens with Barlow's stirring anthem “Yorkshire”, which extols the immutable merits of the county’s green and pleasant landscape and takes us through 12 calendar months in the life of this close-knit community. Huge piles of green-tinged cupboards and cabinets stand in for the dales in Robert Jones’s striking and droll design. The furniture is stacked so as to allow for moving effects (John's death simply signalled by his walking away up an incline) and playful ones (the doors can be opened for domestic exits and entrances). The story now climaxes with the uproarious photo-shoot; it does not follow the girls all the way to Hollywood and dissension. Instead, as they brace themselves to bare all, the characters now have the time to reassess their lives and relationships in song.

The lyrics have a wry observational wit that's ideally suited to tracing the permeable boundary in the show between quirky humour and heartbreak. It’s because they are rooted in everyday reality that Joanna Riding’s superb Annie is able to achieve such unforced poignancy when she delivers the two beautiful ballads “Scarborough” and “Kilimanjaro”. In the first, thoughts of their annual seaside holiday are darkened by speculative sorrow as she tries to imagine its familiar routines without her husband. In the second, she sings with a piercing, down-to-earth poetry about the painful practical chores that face the bereaved, such as donating the loved one's clothes to a charity shop: “Take a pair of shoes that danced last New Year’s Eve/Then give them to a grateful stranger and leave.” She may never get to the lonely mountains where the gentle John had dreamed of going on a fundraising trek but she knows now that, to those cut off by grief, “there is nothing in Nepal/More scary than the step from the kitchen to the hall”.

The lovely melodies in Barlow’s beguiling score sometimes have a distinctively British sound as though he's been channelling the Parry of “Jerusalem” (which we hear in blasts) and mid-period Beatles. The 10-piece band, rich in brass instruments, does the score handsome justice. I think that Victoria Wood would have approved.

Firth has incorporated a new sub-plot that counterpoints the ladies' uncomfortable memories of teenage indiscretion, dredged up by the impending strip, with the adolescent anxieties (“Hello Yorkshire, I'm a virgin”) of would-be head boy, Danny, adorably played in all his hapless Philip Larkin-quoting righteousness by Ben Hunter. It’s feels a bit schematic that Claire Moore's gloriously gutsy Chris, the driving force behind the calendar scheme, here backs out of it (for a while) when she thinks that her son is going off the rails because of her bad example. But it sets up a powerful scene in which Chris makes a sudden last-minute appearance at the National Conference of the Women's Institute to support her best friend Annie as she prepares to take on the forces of prejudice.

The cracking female ensemble includes Sophie-Louise Dann as Celia, who pouts with pride about her cosmetically enhanced cleavage (“Your dress codes don't apply/When you're Miss July,” she imagines telling the stuffy golf-club committee in “So I’ve Had A Little Work Done”) and Michelle Dotrice, who is a delight as Jessie, the retired teacher whose watchword is never to do what age expects of you.

The climactic photo-shoot is hilariously well-timed and springs surprises that I won't spoil as the women whip their kit off behind those strategically placed buns et al. The uplift in the finale of many musicals feels empty because the sequences airbrush away too much of the pain that went before. But the sunflower was seeded by John as symbol of life-seeking persistence (“Like a sunflower following the sun/Won’t give up until the day is done”), so it’s both inspiring and poignant when a great bank of these blooms rears up as the backdrop to the closing scene. Even the most glowing memorial can't suppress feelings of loss.

If you think that “wiping away tears of laughter and sorrow” is one those activities that, like “rolling in the aisles”, only happens in reviews, you give should this show a visit. I suspect that it's going to be on a long time. Among other things, it’s the definitive riposte to any notion that the calendar girls are getting overexposed.

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