First a film, then a play, and now a musical, Calendar Girls tells the true story of a Yorkshire W.I. group's brilliant fundraising effort of creating a (discreetly) nude calendar of their members assets (with plenty of ass but no "front bottoms", as one character calls it) to pay for a memorial sofa after the husband of one of them dies of cancer. And it feels like it has now found its real home in the process, with the musical itself now an even bigger memorial to him, as well as their own dynamic form of self-empowerment and self-expression.
That, of course, is one of the regular tropes of musicals themselves, that routinely show characters striving towards some kind of achievement or revelation. Somehow the converge of this story and this form make that rare thing: a new British musical that doesn't just sing but also soars. The 2003 film's co-writer Tim Firth previously adapted it as a hit West End play that transferred from a Chichester premiere in 2008 to St Martin's Lane in 2009, but it didn't really feel like it added anything to what we'd already seen in the film.
But the musical makes closer, more vivid connections between the stage and its audience; not just that characters are afforded individual songs to articulate inner thoughts, like the achingly beautiful ballad Scarborough for Joanna Riding's Annie, where she sings of a long-planned holiday and what it would mean if her husband wasn't there, but also joyful group numbers like Sunflower, which are like "a satellite dish for the sun", as one sings. "Fight to find the sunlight in the sky", they also sing, and the show finds plenty of sunlight in this tender, sad but uplifting story.
Firth has been joined as his own songwriter by Take That's Gary Barlow, and its a canny choice: just as Elton John brought a populist style to Billy Elliot (another film to stage musical based on a real-life story), so this score has a tuneful contemporary pop sensibility, but also is character and story driven to belong in the theatre.
As such, it is a direct line from Firth's sometime collaborator Willy Russell's Blood Brothers (which coincidentally played the greater part of its nearly quarter of a century London run at this same address), and speaks (and sings) with the same combination of wit, warmth and sadness to connect with its audience.
That's also, of course, in no small part to the utter generosity and naked honesty, in every sense, of a superb cast that unusually puts middle-aged actresses front and centre throughout. Actresses often complain of a dearth of roles when they hit their 40s; this show gives starring roles to a whole bunch of women from their 40s to 60s.
And they're spectacular. Each and every one is strongly characterised, hilarious and touching by turns. But it is the gorgeous and enduring friendship between Joanna Riding's Annie (whose husband dies) and Claire Moore's Chris that gives the plot its motor and centre, and both of them respond with the kind of heartbreakingly wonderful performances that don't come along too often. Both have been long-established veterans of the London stage -- Riding was a stunning Julie Jordan in Carousel at the National nearly 25 years ago, for which she won an Olivier, but more recently has been seen in shows like The Pajama Game and taking over in Billy Elliot, while Moore was the alternate Christine to Sarah Brightman in the original Phantom of the Opera 30 years ago, and more recently has been in London Road at the National. But now all those years of stage experience combine in a completely confident and warming display of real, open-hearted camaraderie.
I adored them and I adored this show. It's a sure-fire hit.
The Girls Tickets are now on sale.
What the Press Said...
"A show whose feelgood conclusion is genuinely earned rather than arbitrarily imposed."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Both inspiring and poignant."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Not a fully rounded pleasure, then, but for all its obvious blemishes, it’s still a beaut."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Riding is touching and the rest of the cast are undeniably game."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard