With its opening number setting the scene, it’s a celebration of rural Yorkshire: bunting, tea drinking, village fetes, hill walking, and community. Originally performed as a play back in 2009, this new musical version – with score from Gary Barlow and lyrics from Tim Firth – premiered in 2015 at the Grand Theatre Leeds and clearly captured the minds of its local audience. It’s all as quaint and cheerful and unashamedly British as the 2003 Calendar Girls film on which this production is based (inspired by true events).
In a sleepy village, a group of W.I. women put together a (tasteful!) nude calendar to raise charity money after the death of a husband to cancer. In the process, they confound expectations of the W.I., the village, and women themselves. Here are a group of middle-aged women emancipated, standing up to the stern matriarchy of the W.I. and dragging it into the modern age.
Except, little about this production feels modern – from its small-scale set, to its simple score, to its politics. Success in regional theatre doesn’t necessarily equate to West End success and it’s questionable how relevant this production is to a London audience. In a post-Brexit world, an all-white, all-straight cast stuck in a time warp feels out of touch with modern tastes.
Yet there’s charm aplenty in this production, one filled with universal truths no matter what region you live in. The plot revolves around Joanna Riding’s Annie as she struggles with grief when her husband John (James Gaddas) dies of cancer. Her numbers prove to be the most emotive, Barlow’s simple music highlighting the little, quiet moments of this kitchen sink drama. There’s huge tragedy in something as straightforward as a visit to the supermarket alone, Riding delivering a potently poignant performance. Claire Moore also offers some belting vocals as Chris, whilst Claire Machin (Cora), Michele Dotrice (Jessie), Sophie-Louise Dann (Celia) and Debbie Chazen (Ruth) all amuse in their respective roles. These are real women with real problems serving female empowerment – a triumph of storytelling. And as the show seamlessly builds towards its inevitable naked climax, these women should be commended for their bravery in baring all for the audience.
Barlow’s score isn’t always up to much, the melodies following the rhythms of everyday speech but without much of a hook. The pop arrangements are simple and enjoyable enough, but lack the depth or complexity needed to really make a musical statement. And that’s a reflection of the show as a whole: a gently pleasant evening that will warm the heart but won’t challenge the mind.
Watch: The Girls runs until July 2017.
Photos: Matt Crockett