Book, music and lyrics by Tim Firth and Gary Barlow
Phoenix Theatre, London
Reviewed By Jarlath O'Connell
The Girls is a new musical based on the true story of a group of Yorkshire WI (Women’s Institute) ladies who created a sensation by replacing their dull annual fundraising calendars, with their typical views of local churchyards, with one featuring themselves in tastefully nude poses utilising strategically placed iced buns. They became a media sensation and raised much needed funds for a local hospital which had treated one of their husbands in his last months of cancer.
The story became the hit 2003 movie Calendar Girls, starring Helen Mirren and then in 2008 the writer Tim Firth produced a stage version which itself has become one of the most successful British plays ever, has toured for 5 years and has also clocked up 800 amateur productions so far.
Firth then hooked up with pop superstar Gary Barlow (they share a hometown) who had loved the original. They’re both listed as just writers here and this is revealing because their collaboration on book, music and lyrics is so strong you really don’t see the joins. Firth also directs. What is remarkable in this latest transformation of the material is that it now seems to have found its natural home. Barlow has revealed a rare talent for writing musicals, not the same as penning pop hits, which was his forte and his many fans will lap up the affectionate tone of this piece.
It is unashamedly sentimental yet it is never schmaltzy as Firth has leavened the drama, a woman’s grief at losing her husband to cancer, with a perfectly attuned ear for Yorkshire attitude and turn of phrase. It’s a touching portrait of a community. Faithful to a sense of time and place its characters are quietly stoic but never stiff and never less than fully rounded human beings. It creates a sense of intimacy with its audience too which is captivating.
An ensemble piece needs a well drilled cast and there isn’t a weak link here with established leading ladies of the West End mingling with lesser known names. Joanna Riding in the central role of Annie anchors the piece musically and dramatically and delivers two killer ballads, ‘Scarborough’ and ‘Kilmanjaro’, one a hymn to coupledom and the other a poignant rumination on moving on from bereavement. Similarly Claire Moore succeeds in turning her role as the gregarious best friend Chris into more than just the life and soul of the party. '70s sitcom fans will also delight in seeing Michele Dotrice (Betty from Some Mother’s Do Ave ‘Em) as the most senior of the troupe, a retired teacher with a dry wit, who draws the line at revealing “front bottoms”. The supporting men, both young and old, are all beautifully etched too.
The show’s climax, the photoshoot, is staged with playful surprises and it typifies how this show is polished but never slick. The verbal and visual gags deftly counterpoint the drama throughout and the piece is a hymn to quiet, unshowy, Englishness.
Robert Jones' bucolic set combines rolling green dales with kitchen cabinets, perfectly fusing themes of nature and the domestic. The design misfires only at the end though with the arrival of a profusion of sunflowers, the show’s central motif, which hinder the cast’s movement.
So while the show is more cosy than ground-breaking, it has real heart which means it will travel. It also does something very clever, it puts the lives of middle-aged women center stage and considering they’re the most significant chunk of the theater ticket buying public, this makes for good business and good art.