A look at the out-of-town tryout for The Girls musical
Following on from my colleague Dom's predictions of West End openings in 2016, we decided we would seize the opportunity to take a trip North of the M25 - all the way up to Salford Quays in fact - to check out one of those shows hotly tipped for a West End transfer. After its world premiere engagement at Leeds' Grand Theatre from 14th November to 12th December 2015, The Girls - a new musical adaptation of Calendar Girls by Gary Barlow and Tim Firth - played a second out-of-town tryout at The Lowry in the heart of MediaCityUK. The extended run played from 8th to 30th January 2016 and I was fortunate enough to catch one of the final performances at the weekend.
Calendar Girls is of course a household name thanks to one of the most beloved British films in recent memory. The 2003 flick featured a screenplay by Tim Firth and Juliette Towhidi and an impressive cast of British acting royalty including Julie Walters, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, and Dame Helen Mirren, who also earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance. In September 2008, Tim Firth's stage adaptation premiered at the famed Chichester Festival Theatre before embarking on a national tour and a subsequent West End transfer to the Noel Coward Theatre, where it began previews on 9th April 2009, and officially opened with mixed to positive reviews on 20th April. The original West End cast was also comprised of a gathering of very talented actresses from the late Lynda Bellingham to Patricia Hodge, Siân Phillips and Elaine C. Smith. Despite only running for less than a year in the West End (through to 9th January 2010), thanks to a revolving-door-cast of actresses with wider known profiles and a second national tour which continued through to December 2012, Calendar Girls was deemed a commercial success.
It comes as no surprise then that just three years later, Mr Firth is back with his biggest hit to date and this time he has enlisted the help of long-time friend and Take That's very own Gary Barlow, who provides music and lyrics. Barlow's first foray into musical theatre was met with mixed reviews on the other side of the Atlantic. Finding Neverland garnered a handful of underwhelmed critiques on Broadway (mainly due to a political backlash against the show's Hollywood Heavyweight producer Harvey Weinstein, in my opinion) and was shunned at last year's Tonys, but has continued to win various audience awards and remain a crowd pleaser. So how will his first UK theatre venture fare?
The first thing that struck me about The Girls was its deliberate efforts to be an entirely new incarnation. Had Firth simply dusted the cobwebs off the old set used in the play version and shoe-horned Barlow's songs into the script willy-nilly, whilst no doubt still entertaining, it would have felt somewhat like he was cheating the keen theatre enthusiasts amongst us. The scenic design by Robert Jones evoked a stylised picture of the Yorkshire Dales comprised of great hills of green-painted kitchen cupboards and cabinets, which opened at various points to create the illusion of different rooms or outdoor settings in the story. Tim Lutkin's lighting design beautifully painted evocative sunsets in the countryside as well as a London urban landscape. There was a little too much low-level lighting throughout, however, which gave the impression that much of the plot unfolded at night-time. A little more brightness and colour might well be injected if the show reaches the West End. In terms of the script, there was also more focus on other characters which weren't highlighted as much in the play. A clear example of this was the subplot with three of the W.I. ladies' children - Tommo, Danny and Jenny (played with great comic timing by Josh Benson, Ben Hunter and Chloe Jackson, respectively). But at the same time, the elements of the story which make Calendar Girls so nationally loved obviously had to remain. Its cheeky Northern humour and its unashamedly button-pushing moments of sadness are key ingredients for its ongoing success. We laugh, we cry and now thanks to the addition of the music, we tap our toes along with the characters too.
I am a huge fan of reprises and musical interludes which repeat melody motifs throughout the show and Mr Barlow has done a superb job in this respect. You can't leave the theatre not humming at least one or two of his anthems and that is always a sign of a good musical in my book. Highlights included the musical numbers "Yorkshire," "Who Wants A Silent Night?," "Sunflower," and "Dare" and you just can't beat a song with an opening line like "Hello, Yorkshire. I'm a virgin!" Yes, some of the melodies you might expect to find on a Take That album, but this is modern musical theatre and it may appeal to a wider audience than the Webber and Sondheim aficionados out there.
Vivien Parry, Debbie Chazen, Claire Moore, Joanna Riding,
Sara Kestelman & Claire Machin (Photo by Matt Crockett)
Claire Moore and Joanna Riding lead the cast and gave strong acting performances as Chris and Annie, respectively. They didn't have the vocal capabilities to stand toe-to-toe with some of Barlow's songs at times, but this also added to the charm of the piece in a way. You might not expect a group of ladies from a Yorkshire W.I. to sound like Barbra Streisand or Audra McDonald, after all. Even when they sang, there was a certain authenticity about them. And of course the nude photo shooting scenes didn't fail to bring a rapture of applause from the audience every time one of the cast's brave women dropped her dressing gown to reveal herself (albeit behind strategically placed buns, knitting, pianos and flower pots).
The British theatre certainly needs a shot in the arm when it comes to British musicals and I certainly feel that The Girls is a huge step in the right direction. It celebrates Britishness in both humorous and touching ways and I would welcome it to the West End with open arms and lashings of plum jam. Bring on The Girls!