Wednesday 15th August 2018 at The Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds (final Dress Rehearsal).
Calendar Girls is inspired by the real women of a Yorkshire WI who created a nude calendar after a loved one was lost – first a real story, then a play and a film, and now a musical; this is certainly a story of lasting appeal. The Calendar Girls Musical is written by Gary Barlow and Tim Firth and is based on the movie which Firth wrote with Juliette Towhidi – for me, it’s very much a warm and witty northern comedy first and a musical second, and that most definitely works in its favour. I attended the final dress rehearsal performance of the show before it opens tonight and then embarks on a major tour after a run in Leeds. It’s an all-star cast directed by Matt Ryan and the production allows each a chance to strut their stuff with a script that is rich with one-liners and that special brand of understated comedy which pervades northern stories, using the everyday to create belly-laughs as well as tears. Suddenly Tesco provides heartbreak, Larkin is looked to for ultimate teen wisdom and brocolli and shadows are hilarious – and that’s great writing.
This is a surprising musical in its subtlety and it’s delicate ratio of tragedy and comedy. It’s not necessarily a musical masterpiece of catchy, memorable tunes you’d be desperate to have to sing along to on a road trip, nor is it a vocally powerful showcase – the songs are highly narrative and often take shape as a reflective monologue of sorts, with a few bigger numbers making big statements by big characters, but it’s not a show-stopper musical. Songs, like the narrative, range from moving to hilarious with the opening song Yorkshire setting the rural scene perfectly and songs like What Age Expects and My Russian Friend and I hitting the comedy bull’s eye. Yet although some tunes have catchy refrains, they serve the dramatic and comic story more than the musical element and although there are some lovely tuneful voices amongst the cast, these women are best at comedy, and this musical plays to those strengths as opposed to vocal strengths.
Anna-Jane Casey takes the most dramatic role as the central character Annie, whose husband passes away from Cancer. Casey’s performance is very moving but she also gets the laughs in a finely crafted combination. Fern Britton takes the role of local WI lead Marie – a woman born to bask in the work of small village bake-sale politics and she’s the perfect self-assigned lady type with some nice razor sharp lines well landed. Sara Crowe is the brilliant reclusive do-gooder Ruth, who finds herself in the process of fearing exposure and Crowe’s tightly wound characterisation gives way to raucous laughs in Act 2. Karen Dunbar is wonderful as the charismatic Cora, a priest’s daughter with a rebel streak itching to take control of a carefully lived life – Dunbar gives some of the best musical performances and is by far the most selflessly daring player in the calendar shoot. Ruth Madoc is hilarious as Jessie, the age-defying ex-teacher who shan’t be left behind in the dust – the one-liners are landed without fail and Madoc’s after-thought, stoic or vacant delivery is a real hoot.
Rebecca Storm is the loud and proud village rebel as Chris, a woman struggling to toe the line between being a great fun-loving and good-hearted friend alongside being the mother of an easily mortified teen son (Storm also boasts the best voice in the cast). Denise Welch once more proves herself to be a perfect choice for roles requiring a strong, self-assured woman who loves to laugh, cracks the jokes and has a gold-clad heart- along with Madoc and Ruth, she inspires the big laughs. While this is very much a show about women, their commitment to one another and their fearlessness when it comes to a greatly personal philanthropic challenge, there’s a nice sub-plot here too. We meet three awkward teens navigating their most sensitive years in a small village where scandal is generally sparse but suddenly very immediate to them. Isabel Caswell’s Jenny is all rebellion and acidic rejection and Danny Howker and Tyler Dobbs are a great double act as clueless mates Danny and Tommo. Howker in particular delivers and then some with a comically self-conscious performance and spot-on delivery of one of the best modern teen angst songs to make it to the stage in recent years.
With this show being the final dress rehearsal, there are of course some creases to be ironed out, particularly with pace in Act 1, and I’m not convinced that the overall narrative structure is sound, but there’s too much to love about this to be a Moaning Myrtle over the niggles. It’s crystal clear that this show has the ability to move and amuse in equal measure, which explains the success the show found in the West End, but for me, this is a great comedy with some great musical moments and some well-placed poignancy to give the production some gravity. There are so many great one liners in fact that I can’t remember them, it’s just a flurry of observational wise-cracks that left me crying with laughter but didn’t give me a chance to hang onto them before the next round began. The comedy is strongest not only because the script is so affectionately Yorkshire in nature, but the hilarity of re-creating that nude photo shoot live on stage builds relentlessly – it’s a display of fearlessness from the central cast which instantly wins over an audience, but it’s also a cracking source of comedy to bring the show to a jolly good close. We definitely need more warm-hearted northern stories like this on big stages. Catch it if you can!