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Calendar Girls: The Musical (Susan Elkin reviews)

Calendar Girls: The Musical – ★★★★
By Gary Barlow and Tim Firth (part of a UK tour)
society/company: Marlowe Theatre (professional) (directory)
performance date: 05 Sep 2018
venue: Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury


I have rarely shed so many tears in the theatre – mostly of laughter but quite a few of the other sort as well – as during this glorious, joyous musical version of Calendar Girls.

There can’t be many people who aren’t familiar with this upbeat, true story about a group of Yorkshire WI members who posed for a nude calendar in aid of a memorial for a friend who had died of cancer. Tim Firth’s film was terrific, as was his “straight” stage play. Now comes this musical version in collaboration with Gary Barlow (they’ve been friends since childhood) which ran to great acclaim in the West End last year and is currently touring.

It’s the laughter I shall long treasure. I remember the film and play as being amusing but not hilariously funny. But Karen Dunbar’s bottom flash, the line “you can’t get pregnant after a curry” one character telling his wife that he didn’t marry her for a “smooth path” but for “crazy paving – and much much more – kept me chortling all evening.

Yes, the book is beautifully written with real character depth and lots of emotion worn, for the most part, cheerfully. But what really drives this along are Gary Barlow’s songs and the commensurate skill of a large cast. Under director, Matt Ryan, the whole edifice purrs along with warmth and slickness.

Barlow provides a character song for each lead actor at some point. Ruth Madoc, for example, is sparky as the elderly retired teacher and her vibrant singing voice in What Age Expects of You, once she gets going, is like operatic honey.

Dunbar, as the organ playing vicar’s daughter and single mother, does a very enjoyable medley of “alternative” Christmas carols, her voice a powerful alto and her “naughty” personality sparkling through everything her character says and does. She has a knack with innuendo.

Rebecca Storm as Chris sings supremely well too. Her full belt is – well – full and her portrayal of her irreverent, witty, sometimes troubled Chris is fine acting.

I also like the way Barlow has created opera-style recitative for Annie, impressively played by Anna-Jane Casey. She has to deal with widowhood and is, at times, very sad. The thoughtful, sung emotion works very effectively. Casey adeptly manages the development of her character as she gradually sinks herself into the challenges on the new project too.

Also noteworthy is the use, in this version of the story, made of the tension between the generations in the community. Two teenagers in the village (Tyler Dobbs and Danny Howker – both good)) somehow have to cope with what their mothers are doing and it’s both well observed and very funny. There’s good work from Isabel Caswell as the girl they team up with too.

It’s cheerful fun, ably supported by a six piece live band with Tony Higgins as MD. There’s plenty of brass in the score to remind you that this is Yorkshire. Nostalgia and comic timing are a powerful mix. You leave the theatre feeling uplifted and with lots of tunes in your head. What more could you ask for?

 This review was first published by Sardines:
Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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