Calendar Girls – The Musical

Everyone will be familiar with the 2003 movie Calendar Girls starring Julie Walters & Helen Mirren which was inspired by the true story of a group of ladies, who decide to appear nude for the Women’s Institute calendar.

The twelve women decided to pose naked in the calendar to help raise £500 for a sofa to put in the waiting room of their local Skipton hospital in memory of John Baker, the husband of one of the ladies, who died five months after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They have since raised more than £5m over the last twenty one years for Bloodwise, the UK’s specialist blood cancer charity and will continue to raise money from this production. 

This musical comedy shows what happened in that small Yorkshire village, how it affected the husbands, sons and daughters of the women and how a group of ordinary ladies achieved something simply amazing. The movie has become a worldwide sensation and it has also inspired Gary Barlow of Take That to join forces with his childhood school friend Tim Firth, writer of the film and play, to produce a musical version of Calendar Girls.

Gary Barlow and Tim Firth grew up in the same village in the North of England and have been friends for 25 years. With Take That, Gary has written and co-written 14 number one singles, has sold over 50 million records worldwide and is a six times Ivor Novello Award winner. Tim has won the Olivier Award and UK Theatre Award for Best New Musical, and the British Comedy Awards Best Comedy Film for Calendar Girls so the creative team for this musical has an outstanding pedigree.

The excellent cast includes many familiar faces: Ruth Madoc best known for playing Gladys Pugh in the 1980s BBC television comedy Hi-de-Hi as Jessie, Sarah Jane Buckley (Kathy Barnes in Hollyoaks) as the widowed Annie, Sue Devaney (Debbie Webster in Coronation Street) as Cora, Julia Hills (Doctor Kemp in Broadchurch) as dippy Ruth, Judy Holt (Cold Feet) as Marie, the fantastic Lisa Maxwell (panellist on Loose Women, Tracey Donovan in Hollyoaks) as Celia and Rebecca Storm (discovered by Willy Russell and cast as Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers) as Chris.

Also in the cast are Claudia Bradley as Miss Wilson, Phil Corbitt as John, Ian Mercer as Rod, Sebastian Abineri as Colin, Alan Stocks as Denis, Derek Elroy as Lawrence, Pauline Daniels as Lady Cravenshire, Ellie Leah as Miss Wilson, Danny Howker as Danny, Isabel Caswell as Jenny and Tyler Dobbs as Tommo.

The musical is a lot more than a story about a group of women raising money for a hospital settee, it is about the friendship between women, a strong friendship that for many is everlasting, one that will endure for life. It was difficult not to shed a tear and feel the heartbreak of Annie and her friends after the death of local farmer John ‘Clarkey’ Clarke, played superbly by Phil Corbitt.

I felt the grief of Annie`s loss (Sarah Jane Buckley) when she finds herself widowed but inspired by her friends to take action and I marvelled at the singing dynamics of Chris (Rebecca Storm). At times she lifted the roof of the auditorium. There are plenty of laughs as the ladies of the WI fight back against the restrictions imposed by their conservative chair Marie, played by the suitably snobbish Judy Holt, the only woman on stage who doesn’t end up casting adrift their dressing gown for the entertaining calendar shoot.

Loose Women favourite Lisa Maxwell is Celia, the former air hostess, gets some of the biggest laughs, along with Julia Hills as Ruth, whose unhappy marriage leads her to bake a huge number of scones and turn to her Russian friend for comfort, `My Russian friend and I`. Her drunken entrance onto the nude photo shoot is very amusing and unexpected. How she manages to climb on to the table whilst trying to preserve her modesty behind various flowers and cakes, deserves a special mention.

Credit must be given to all of the actresses who were prepared to strip off on stage in front of several hundred people to help support the authenticity to the show and what the original calendar girls set out to do. Some of them even bared their boobs as a last show of female empowerment.

How would most women in the audience have reacted, if in a similar situation, one of their closest and dearest friends had asked them to strip naked for a tasteful nude calendar to help raise money for the local hospital. Many would probably opt for a raffle or even a charity sky dive than pose naked themselves. It must have been a momentous and very decision for many of them to take at the time.

This musical is in many ways  is a pleasing confirmation of female friendship and the determination of middle-aged women not to be side lined by a society which generally favours youthful bodies and appearances in the media and world of popular entertainement and music. It is a show of empowerment, women`s friendship, teenage love and the rejection of the stereotyping of ageing.

The predominantly female audience of all ages, teenage girls, mothers and daughters laughed and some even shed a tear or two as the story progressed. The songs were brilliant, not just a collection of tunes thrown together to fill the gaps in the story but songs which helped build  and thread the story together, adding meaning to a scene or creating the platform for characters to express their thoughts and feelings. I loved the song ` I`ve had a little work done` sung by Lisa Maxwell, it raised loads of laughs and fitted her character of a former air hostess and the scene perfectly.

Even the teenage characters story of the developing love between Jenny & Danny and the struggles with their parents was a thread well developed and much understood by many of the parents and teenagers sitting in the audience. Best friend Tommo played by Tyler Dobbs raised many laughs throughout. The three teenagers brought even more laughs to the show as they cringed at the embarrassment of their mothers’ plan to pose naked for a calendar.

The photo shoot was brilliantly executed, even the photographer Lawrence played by Derek Elroy appeared to know what he was doing, placing the ladies behind strategically placed flowers, piano and fruit collections. The Derngate audience loved it, howling and applauding every drop of the dressing gowns by each of the girls.

The show was uplifting, funny and at times emotional. The songs were memorable and well executed leaving many in the audience moved by the rollercoaster of emotions the show produces. The Yorkshire set was convincing and the set changes swift and hardly noticed never interfering with the flow of the show. Mugs of Yorkshire beer and tea helped set the scenes!

A roaring success which prompted many in the audience to give the assembled cast of eighteen, not for getting the six musicians and director, a standing ovation at the finale. Everyone appeared to leave the auditorium with a smile on their faces expressing delight and pleasure, a sentiment echoed by this reviewer.

If you are looking for a great night out of entertaining drama, brilliant songs get yourself along to the Derngate for this musical production of Calendar Girls, you will not regret it!

Calendar Girls – The Musical

Wednesday 9th October – Saturday 12th October 2019

Ring the Box Office today

01604 624811

Royal & Derngate

19-21 Guildhall Rd