Review – Calendar Girls The Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th October 2019

72330356_976166089402553_323391701446033408_nCalendar Girls is one of those stories that never seems to go away. First, there was the reality – the death in 1998 of John Clarke, which inspired his widow Angela to create the famous naked Women’s Institute Calendar for 2000; and again for 2004, 5, 7 and 8. Then came the 2003 film starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters that won Best Film at the British Comedy Awards. 2008 saw the premiere of Tim Firth’s play at the Chichester Festival, with a feisty cast including Elaine C Smith, Sian Phillips, Lynda Bellingham and Patricia Hodge – we loved it. When we saw it a couple of years later at the Royal and Derngate, however, it had turned into a bit of a stinker; in those days I used to give a Chrisparkle Award to the Worst Play/Production of the Year (I’m not that childish or cruel nowadays), and I’m afraid it won first prize.

SARAH-JANE-BUCKLEYHowever, in 2015 Tim Firth joined forces with Gary Barlow of Take That fame to pen Calendar Girls The Musical, which opened in Leeds that year, then received a West End transfer in 2017 and started touring in October 2018. A year later, it has finally arrived in Northampton, and we thought we’d give those daring ladies another try.

PHIL-CORBITTIt’s now a very different entity. From the very first moment when Phil Corbitt’s John walks through a country gate and starts singing wholesomely and romantically about Yorkshire, you’re caught up in a world of country goodness, Mother Nature, solid family/friendships, and a feeling that all’s right in the world. In fact, those opening moments reminded me strongly of the beginning to Oklahoma!, a lone rural soul extolling the virtues of his beloved homeland. Mr Corbitt’s voice is warm and reassuring; Mr Firth’s lyrics are heart-warming and emotional; Mr Barlow’s melodies are strong, evocative and rewarding. And that very much sets the tone for the entire show. The performances are all very strong – particularly musically; the adaptation of the original is inventive, funny and moving; and the tunes range from the enjoyable to the memorable. Mrs Chrisparkle felt she heard shades of Blood Brothers; I sensed elements of The Hired Man. If we’re both right, that has to be a winning combination.

REBECCA-STORMI must admit, I had low (maybe no) expectations of this show, but I was completely wrong. It’s a blast from start to finish, whether that’s through the upbeat characterisations of the Women’s Institute members, or through the strength of the relationships portrayed between all the characters, or through a variety of high comedy scenes. It also gets the emotional sadness of John’s declining health absolutely right, which prepares us for Annie’s brave bereavement and her subsequent way forward, largely due to support from her irrepressible bestie Chris.

LISA-MAXWELLWhereas the play seemed interminably slow to start, the musical just gets on with it, which is a virtue all of its own. It also, extremely successfully, brings out the characters of Danny (Chris’ son), Tommo (Cora’s son) and Jenny (Marie’s daughter), who are all at school together and clumsily formulating relationships of their own. Scenes with the younger actors balance nicely with the older cast to give a fuller picture of the village environment. If I remember rightly, the play rewards us with the always hilarious taking-the-photographs scene about halfway or two-thirds way through; whereas the musical uses this as its near climax, if you’ll pardon the expression. The musical version of the naked photoshoot remains hysterically funny with inspired use of buns and some members of the cast throwing care to the wind with what they might or might not reveal.

JULIA-HILLSThe performances are universally excellent throughout. Sarah Jane Buckley is brilliant as Annie; musically, her delivery of the song Scarborough, where she starts to show anxiety about how life can carry on with an incapacitated John, was the show’s highlight for me. Rebecca Storm’s Chris is a hearty, confident type, full of support for her friend; Julia Hills’ repressed Ruth is a brilliant portrayal of an older woman putting on a brave front – again, another musical highlight is her hilarious (yet sad) My Russian Friend and I where she shares the source of her consolation.

TYLER-DOBBSGreat to see Ruth Madoc on fine form as older headmistress Jessie, with just the right level of status-oriented pomposity but with warmth and humour shining through; Lisa Maxwell gives a great performance as bodily-enhanced Celia, and Sue Devaney is fantastic as always, as vicar’s daughter Cora, trying to encourage son Tommo to do as I say not as I do. On which subject, Tyler Dobbs is superb as Tommo in what I suspect is his first major professional role. Danny Howker is a nicely innocent Danny, and Isabel Caswell is a nicely knowing Jenny, which makes them a perfect pairing. But the entire cast do a great job in bringing this emotionally-charged but never maudlin – and frequently hilarious – musical to life.

SUE-DEVANEYHighly recommended; after Northampton, the tour continues to Blackpool, Chester, Bath and Chichester. Tickets – if there are any left – are available through the tour website here. It received a deserving standing ovation on its first night in Northampton – I can only suggest you book to discover for yourself why.

ISABEL-CASWELLP. S. I can’t work out why this show seems to appeal almost exclusively to women. On Tuesday night I doubt whether the packed house of 1200 theatregoers had more than 20 men. Maybe men are still too scared to witness emotion? Who knows? Have a word with yourselves, guys, you’re missing out on a lot of fun!

Review – Blood Brothers, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th November 2017

Blood BrothersI remember hearing a broadcast on Radio 3 once (I know, get me) where the announcer was introducing a performance of Handel’s Water Music. The question arose: why do we have to hear Handel’s Water Music again, it’s so commonplace and everyone knows it, let’s hear something more experimental? The announcer’s response? “Just remember, every time Handel’s Water Music is played, some young person is hearing it for the first time, and what a beautiful moment that is for them”. That’s so true, and it’s the same with Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. It’s been around since the early 80s and hardly ever stops touring in some guise or other; surely we’ve had enough of it now? For the answer to that, gentle reader, you only had to hear the shocked gasps from (I would guess) at least half the packed audience at the Derngate on Monday night to tell you that every time a performance of Blood Brothers takes place, someone sees it for the first time; and what emotional nourishment it provides.

Blood-Brothers-group-shotThis was the third time we’ve seen it, and it’s been too long a gap. Our first experience was at the Albery (now Noel Coward) theatre in 1988, with Kiki Dee as Mrs Johnstone and Con O’Neill as Mickey. Our second was in 1995, at the Apollo (now back to being called the New) in Oxford, with Clodagh Rodgers as Mrs J and David Cassidy (yes, the David Cassidy) as Mickey. Of course, the first production had Barbara Dickson in the role; and this current touring version stars Lyn Paul. Honestly, where would Mrs Johnstone be without great recording stars of the 1970s?!

Each Mrs J has her own unique characterisation and approach. Kiki Dee was punchy and aggressive, a true fighter. Clodagh Rodgers had a faux-refinement and aspirations to sophistication which meant she had further to fall at the end. Lyn Paul’s Mrs J is running on empty from the start, with dreary memories of her wretch of an ex-husband, exhausted from looking after all those kids and genuinely despairing at the prospect of another two mouths to feed. By the time the show ends, Ms Paul has wrung all her emotions out and is a defeated husk. That’s probably an extremely realistic interpretation.

sean jonesThis show has always had a special place in our hearts, especially Mrs Chrisparkle’s, as, at the age of five, she, along with her parents and brothers, were rehoused from their flat above Fazakerley Post Office, to 65 Skelmersdale Lane – or at least Flamstead, in Skem. Just like the Johnstones, she remembers the green fields, and the fresh air, and so much space everywhere. Away from the muck and the dirt and the bloody trouble, it really was a Bright New Day for everyone.

Dean ChisnallLooking back now, from the viewpoint of today’s 21st century national austerity, to the strikes, unemployment and poverty of the 1980s, nothing much seems to have changed. After Miss Jones was dismissed from her job, despite being a perfect poppet, as just another sign of the times, I don’t suppose she got another job. The only difference today is that today’s Mr Lyons will be creating his own dismissal letters on Word rather than dictating them to a fetching young secretary. That’s progress. And a wealthy upbringing and education is still much more likely to lead to a successful career than playing on the street, being cheeky with your teacher and becoming factory fodder – or today’s equivalent, zero hours contracts in the gig economy. That’s life, but it’s not progress. The essence of the show is to hold up a mirror of nature against nurture, and value kindness, decency, and friendship. In our land of postcode lotteries, where health, benefits and education can depend on which side of the road you live on, that question why did you give me away, I could have been him? seems more relevant than ever today.

I was very struck this time by how the story is completely infused with elements of superstition all the way through. From the portentous saying that if twins separated at birth learn that they were once one of a pair they will both immediately die, to Mrs Johnstone’s horror at seeing new shoes on the table, to looking a magpie in the eye, to the kids’ games where you can get up again if you cross your fingers, folklore and fear rules the roost. I’d always realised it was heavily melodramatic, starting with the end tableau (although a little more stylised than I’ve seen before), so you know there’s never going to be a happy ending. The gloomy, menacing presence of the Narrator is a constant threat and intrusion on their lives, coming right up close to the characters, like a perpetual harbinger of doom, a bad dream that unsettles and disturbs their waking hours. There is light and shade in this show, but shade wins every time.

Danielle CorlassThe performances are superb throughout. I must confess that, at first, I was not entirely sure about Lyn Paul’s presentation of Mrs Johnstone. Her Mrs J is already thoroughly exhausted by everything that life has thrown at her right at the start of the show, and a vital spark was lacking. But as the show developed, I could see that her quiet, serious portrayal was absolutely correct to the character. And what a voice! It’s so powerful, yet so pure; and so perfectly suited to Willy Russell’s amazing lyrics and melodies. It’s a really wonderful performance.

I was also very impressed with Sean Jones’ Mickey. It’s a role with so many elements and so vital to the success of the show. Willy Russell requires us to love Mickey right from the very start – and we do. Thoroughly believable as that irrepressible eight year old, seeing how high he can spit in the air, never going anywhere without his imaginary horse; then the easily embarrassed teenager at a dirty movie, ashamed of his pubescent body; the enthusiastic young worker, doing the overtime and planning on spending it on great Christmas parties; and then, when the harsh reality of life kicks in, the aggressive, jealous Mickey who realises that his life will lack the texture and depth of his best friend’s; and the broken Mickey relying on medication to keep his brain from dancing. Only Five Ages of Man for Mickey as he dies so young, but Sean Jones nails them all absolutely. We’d all like to have a best friend like Mickey – the younger one, that is; someone who makes you laugh, someone who’ll always be on your side; but isn’t a goody-two-shoes either. No wonder the audience is devastated at the end.

Sarah Jane BuckleyIt’s very difficult to portray the eight-year-old Eddie effectively; he’s so posh and innocent, and so different from Mickey that our instant reaction is to mock him rather than side with him. I thought that Mark Hutchinson’s characterisation of him was so wet, and so soft, that it was very unlikely that Mickey would have taken to him. However, once he becomes Eddie the teenager, that’s when he comes into his own. Shag the vicar! Eddie has one of the most telling songs in the show, the restrained and delicate I’m Not Saying a Word, and I really enjoyed Mr Hutchinson’s performance. One character whom in previous productions I’ve always thought of as a bit of an irritant and easily ignored, is Mrs Lyons, but in this production Sarah Jane Buckley gives such a tremendous performance that she is also equally vital to the success of the show. She brings out all the character’s fears and weaknesses; and you readily agree with the diagnosis of others that she probably needs mental health treatment. Ms Buckley also has an amazing voice and is a true credit to the production.

danny-taylor-sammy-sean-jones-mickeyDanielle Corlass’ Linda develops very believably from a squeaky but spirited little girl into a teenager with a massive crush on Mickey, and then into a smart and positive young woman – a very good performance. Dean Chisnall is the least Scouse Narrator I’ve seen (singing “you know the devil’s got your number” and not “nombare”) but has a strong stage presence and great singing voice; and Daniel Taylor’s Sammy, who was always a bad lot, turns that childhood bully into an adult hoodlum with sadly predictable authenticity.

lyn-paulThat massive gasp of shock when the brothers died at the end said it all. The audience were so enthralled and wrapped up in what was going on that they couldn’t keep their emotions in. It’s an excellent production of a staggeringly good show, among the very best musicals of all time. It’s enjoying a week at the Royal and Derngate, before continuing its tour to Nottingham, Sunderland, Bath, Belfast, Weston-super-Mare, Aylesbury, Darlington, Edinburgh, Cheltenham, Rhyl, Carlisle, Barnstaple, Truro, Wolverhampton, Ipswich, Southampton and reaching Manchester in the middle of May. I can’t recommend it too strongly but do book early because everyone else will!