Calendar 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.
However, 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.
It’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.
I 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.
Whereas 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.
The 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.
Great 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.
Highly 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.
P. 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!