Calendar Girls: The Musical – Review – Hull New Theatre

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calendar girls launch in burnsall cast

Calendar Girls: The Musical – Review

Hull New Theatre, November 2018

by Roger Crow

As I’m married to the world’s biggest Take That fan, anything Gary Barlow does is usually flagged up within seconds of it being a thing. So I feel like I’ve been living with Calendar Girls: The Musical for years now. Which is no bad thing. Hearing the soundtrack well in advance of seeing a show only enhances the experience, and CGTM boasts some of Barlow’s best work. Not only is ‘Dare’ one of his finest tracks, but ‘Yorkshire’ may as well be adopted as the region’s anthem. It’s a glorious slice of life that sets the scene for Tim Firth’s fact-based movie-turned stage show.

I’m a huge fan of Barlow and Firth, as you may have gathered in my glowing review of The Band musical, and chat with the latter earlier in 2018. During the Press launch for Calendar Girls in spring, one of the highlights of this or any other year, it was extraordinary to see and chat with the talent, but it was always ‘that show on the horizon; the one to look out for’.

How would it stand up as a paying punter? Would it be everything that Gary, Tim and the rest of the team promised on that sun-kissed day in Burnsall? Well the answer is yes, and so much more.

In some ways it’s the yin to The Full Monty’s yang; a tale of women bound by circumstance who decide to get their kit off for a good cause. Naturally they face embarrassment, but the ends justify the means.

As anyone who’s seen the hit film will know, the ladies of the WI just want to raise enough cash for a new hospital sofa, so loved ones will have a more comfortable time while patients are treated. Like millions of others over the past few months, I’ve had that experience of waiting and hoping in hospitals as a family member is bombarded with chemo in the hope it makes a difference. That’s the thing about Calendar Girls. It touches a chord with so many of us. Little wonder on a freezing, wet November night, Hull New Theatre is heaving. And it’s not even opening night.

tim firth interview calendar girls musical

Tim Firth with the Calendar Girls cast in Yorkshire
image: Matt Crockett

“Sense of wonder”

The Dales-themed set works beautifully: a landscape, a dry stone wall and a gate is gloriously simple, but it also works on assorted levels. Crossing boundaries; facing the wall of authority, passing from one ’region’ to another. Or maybe it’s just a wall. You decide.

As the show opens and ‘Yorkshire’ is belted out, it sets the scene. For me it feels like donning a comfy pair of slippers. We’re in safe hands, and for the duration, as tragedy strikes and Chris (Rebecca Storm) hatches the plan of a nude WI Calendar to raise money for that hospital sofa, there’s plenty of laughter and tears.

There are so many stars in this show, but Rebecca is one of the brightest. Her Chris is a powerhouse character, and not just the rebellious protagonist and catalyst who gets the idea off the ground. Anna-Jane Casey also helps carry the load as Annie, her best friend and widow to John, whose loss is almost palpable.

That fine comic thespian Sara Crowe (Carry On Columbus, Four Weddings) adds light relief and heartbreak in all the right places, especially during the beautifully poignant ‘My Russian Friend’ scene. One of those songs I’d heard months ago which didn’t make much sense until I see it on stage.

And then there’s Ruth Madoc, who gets the lion’s share of applause when that inevitable kit-off scene arrives. All great stage shows need THAT movement where there’s a sense of wonder, shock, or jaw-dropping amazement, and this has 12 months’ worth in the space of 12 minutes (a guesstimate).

calendar girls launch in burnsall fern britton

Fern Britton (right) with other cast members at Burnsall Village Hall

“Tugs at the heart strings”

Fern Britton is terrific as Marie, the by-the-book WI member, while the solid ensemble includes Karen Dunbar as Cora and Denise Welch as Celia.

I get choked up many times during the show. Just the mention of ‘Scarborough’ encapsulates the odd days out which come to define us as we get older. Those fleeting moments of joy at the seaside we look back on; the currency earned by nine-to-five existences.

There are times when some of the dialogue gets lost, either through the chorus of coughs and sneezes from the audience (it’s that time of year), but it doesn’t get in the way of an extraordinary experience.

As with The Band, there are blokes in the show, but again, they’re essentially peripheral characters. They help prop up the proceedings, either as gob-smacked spouses or awkward sons. Phil Corbitt’s John will tug at the heart strings, but there’s much needed levity too with a rib-tickling tug of war. (There’s plenty of subtle gags which I’m guessing flew over the heads of many, so listen out for some gems).

Once more Tim and Gary have played a blinder, and kudos also to producer David Pugh, one of the nicest men in showbusiness who continues to back some terrific shows (his take on Brief Encounter was a West End triumph earlier this year).

If you can get one of the few remaining tickets for this Hull leg of Calendar Girls: The Musical, I heartily recommend it. Like the sunflowers at the heart of the drama, it’s blooming marvellous.

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