I FEEL like I know the story of the infamous ‘Calendar Girls’ inside out, there have been so many versions of the event.
Over the years it has been a documentary, play, feature film, not to mention all the news coverage when the ladies from a Yorkshire Women’s Institute stripped off for a nude charity calendar.
With that in mind I was somewhat sceptical about what a musical version could bring that was new and fresh.
I needn’t have worried – Gary Barlow (he of ‘Take That’ fame) and Tim Firth’s production is delightful, with just the right measure of pathos and laughter.
This is a musical with real heart and the first night audience at Birmingham’s Hippodrome Theatre loved it.
For those that don’t know the story (where have you been?!) back in 1998 the Cracoe village WI decided to create a nude calendar to raise funds for a cancer charity, following the death of the husband of one of their leading members.
With a few strategically-placed bunches of flowers, jars of jam and currant buns to preserve their dignity, these ‘ordinary’ women bravely bared all, raising a huge amount of money and at the same time striking a blow for every woman’s saggy bits, stretch marks and wrinkles.
This musical version firmly sets the scene in the Yorkshire Dales with the opening number ‘Yorkshire’ introducing each member of this tight-knit community. It’s a neat way of setting-up the relationships in one go, so you know from the outset who is with whom and what role they play in village life.
Designer Robert Jones’ set gives us a bucolic panorama of the stunning Yorkshire Dales, which change slightly to denote different parts of the village.
However, the scene changes were a little too subtle for those of us in the Stalls – perhaps better enjoyed from the Circle.
The decline and then death of John, husband of WI leading lady Annie is beautifully handled; creating the first of many tear-jerking moments.
But it isn’t all sadness – there are some very funny laugh-out-loud scenes especially with the young off-spring of the WI ladies as they fumble their way through first loves and deal with the embarrassment of their Mums getting naked.
The famous ‘nude’ scene when the ladies, fortified by more than a little alcohol, finally pose for the photographer is hilarious and brilliantly choreographed so we never quite see more than we should.
The audience cheered every removal of a dressing gown; every reveal of naked flesh – not in leery way, but full of support for the sentiments of the production; that women’s bodies should be celebrated whatever their shape and age – and it’s never too late to defy convention and push your own boundaries to the limits.
The cast has more than a few famous faces from television but to pick anyone out would be churlish as this is a real ensemble piece, where the community spirit of a rural village shines through.
The song lyrics are brilliantly witty and heart-wrenchingly poignant in equal measure and I applaud the articulation that meant we heard every word, however for me the show lacked strong tunes.
I was expecting more from Barlow’s music, I didn’t come out humming and there were no stand out melodies – it was all a bit pedestrian, somehow.
That said, this is a show with genuine feel good factor that leaves you with a warm, fuzzy feeling at the end. As they would say in Yorkshire, ‘there’s nowt wrong wi’ that’.
Calendar Girls is at the Birmingham Hippodrome until June 7.
Review by Johannah Dyer