I'm sure you're familiar with the 2003 film Calendar Girls. Starring the likes of Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Celia Imrie, and Penelope Wilton, it tells the true story of a group of WI women posing for a nude calendar to raise money for a good cause. Gary Barlow and Tim Firth have taken the heartwarming tale and created a musical adaptation for the West End stage.
The Rylestone & District Women's Institute in Yorkshire is your average WI. The women have regular meetings where they listen to mundane presentations and the annual fair (which has a bake off, of course) is the highlight of the calendar. But when one of the women loses her husband at a young age to cancer, her best friend comes up with a crazy plan to raise money for a memorial couch in the local hospital.
They've produced an annual calendar featuring the likes of churches before, which is your typical WI fare but doesn't necessarily raise the funds needed. That's why this year they're attempting to create their own version of the biggest, bestselling calendar out there: a nude one. Their journey to getting this out-of-the-box idea approved and produced is inspirational, funny and, once obstacles on the way have been dealt with, paints a heartwarming picture of the community spirit the WI aspires to bring to women across the UK.
I LOVE the film this musical is based on. It's such a sweet and compelling tale of a group of ordinary women doing something that can be perceived as a bit silly but is actually incredible brave. Their aim wasn't to make headlines across the globe, but instead they wanted to make a small difference in their own community by simply raising money for a friend in a very unique way. Their courage and compassion was incredible heartening, and it's no surprise that the story resonated with so many people worldwide.
While the core story is a good one, the musical numbers didn't add anything of significance to the show. In fact, they somewhat detracted from the heart of the play as there was less time spend on characterisation in favour of songs, and this unsuccessful attempt to add some jazz hands and razzle dazzle to the calendar girls story made the first half of the musical drag on and feel very long. If the songs had been catchy showstoppers that would've been different, but despite the incredible talent at the helm of this musical none of the music was memorable or stood out.
The second half, in comparison, was much more fast-paced and really managed to get the charm and heart of the musical across. This is when the calendar is being photographed and those scenes provided barrels of laughter for both the women on stage and the audience watching their every move. The second half was much more fun to watch and the interaction of the women on stage started to feel more natural as they bonded over shared embarrassment, boldness and excitement.
This is where the actresses also got a chance to truly shine, with especially Joanna Riding (The Pajama Game, Carousel) as Annie showing immense character growth and both Claire Moore (London Road, Les Misérables) as Chris and Claire Machin (Memphis, Made in Dagenham) as Cora showing off their incredible comedic chops. Once a good dose of humour was injected into the musical it all felt a lot more alive and charming, highlighting the strength of the story despite its musical flaws throughout.
The Calendar Girls is a great story and if you haven't seen the film or play yet, then The Girls is a great introduction to the inspirational tale of ordinary women making a difference in a highly original way. The musical adaptation does not quite work (and I normally love a good stagey outing filled with jazz hands and tap numbers), but if you're looking for something that is heartwarming and funny then the Phoenix Theatre is the place to be.
The Girls is playing at Phoenix Theatre and currently taking bookings until 15 July 2017. You can book your tickets here.