Theatre Review: CALENDAR GIRLS – THE MUSICAL, The Lowry, Salford

Rebecca Storm, Fern Britton, Anna-Jane Casey, Sara Crowe, Ruth Madoc, Karen Dunbar & Denise Welch in CALENDAR GIRLS THE MUSICAL

CALENDAR GIRLS THE MUSICAL captures the essence of an inspiring true story with fun, laughter and sensitivity

When a group of members from the Women’s Institute (WI) in Yorkshire decided to put their fears aside and pose naked for a charity calendar, little did they know the impact it would have. Not only did Angela Baker and her friends help to raise millions of pounds for blood cancer charity Bloodwise, but they also helped to inspire a hit 2003 film starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, a West End stage play and now a musical written by Tim Firth and Gary Barlow.

Based on their inspirational true story, CALENDAR GIRLS THE MUSICAL follows Annie (Anne-Marie Casey), a member of the local Women’s Institute and loving wife to John (Phil Corbitt). When John is diagnosed with leukaemia and sadly passes away, Annie’s friends at the WI, led by the redoubtable Chris (Rebecca Storm), rally around her and hatch an audacious plan to raise money for a memorial by means of a nude photo-shoot calendar, much to the disapproval of branch organiser Marie (Fern Britton).

Right from the musical’s opening number YORKSHIRE, CALENDAR GIRLS THE MUSICAL hits all the right notes, capturing the essence of this inspirational true story with fun, laughter and sensitivity. There’s a beautiful, Willy Russell-esque poeticism to Firth’s script, which cleverly weaves pathos with fun, while Barlow’s score captures the essence of the characters and their stories, from the heart-breaking KILIMANJARO to the bluesy and jazzy WHO WANTS A SILENT NIGHT?

The real glory of this show is the women at the centre of the action. Just like the film, the musical features a sizeable cast of well-known faces including Ruth Madoc as Jessie, Sara Crowe as Ruth, Denise Welch as Celia and Fern Britton, who returns to the stage for the first time in 30 years as Marie, all of whom strike a chord.

West End veteran Anna-Jane Casey delivers a hugely relatable and emotional performance as Annie, the wife-then-widow of the ‘Sunflower’ man, bringing the theatre to a standstill with her solo performance of KILIMANJARO. Rebecca Storm is equally strong as her best mate Chris, playing the character with warmth and integrity.

For this touring version, a few changes have been made from the original 2015 production including a revamped script, new songs and new director. The most notable change is Robert Jones’ set design which has been stripped back but still makes clever use of the stage space and, with the help of Oliver Fenwick’s lighting design, manages to bring the beauty of Yorkshire Dales to life on stage.

With so much focus on the women of the piece, the male characters are a little diminished and less rounded but there is a neat comedy sub-plot with youngsters Jenny (Isabel Caswell), Tommo (Tyler Dobbs) and Danny (Danny Howker) bringing some welcome comic relief as the WI member’s children embarrassed by the impending nudity.
You also may not go away singing the musical numbers (they’re mainly unmemorable) but it isn’t really about the score – it’s about the women and their inspiring story, made all the more touching by a special appearance from the original Calendar Girls themselves at the end of the show.

4 out of 5 stars

CALENDAR GIRLS – THE MUSICAL runs at The Lowry, Salford until 10 November 2018