After the hit film, stage play and subsequent media interest, everyone is surely familiar with the real- life story of the WI women who created a nude calendar to raise funds for leukaemia research.
This musical retelling by Gary Barlow and Tim Firth is an absolute joy, exploring the emotions and motivations of the characters in a way which is funny, moving and uplifting all at the same time.
We are drawn into the cosy, comfortable Yorkshire Dales life of the ladies of the W1, as they discuss lectures about such thrilling topics as broccoli, and planning cake shows.
Chris (a feisty Rebecca Storm) is a bit of a chancer, entering an M&S sponge cake into said cake show. She is the best friend of Annie (poignantly played by Anna-Jane Casey) whose husband John (Phil Corbitt) dies – a beautifully handled exit, sensitively worked by director Matt Ryan.
It is Chris who hits upon the idea of a fundraising calendar in which they will all pose nude, though tastefully, with strategically placed iced buns and teapots.
We are taken along on each of the women’s journey of self discovery as they debate whether or not to take part in the photo shoot.
There are some wonderful, strong performances from, in particular, Denise Welch as Celia, Ruth Madoc as Jessie, and Karen Dunbar – what a voice – as Cora. Sara Crowe plays the hapless Ruth, and Fern Britton plays the rather snooty Marie, and was a little lightweight for the part, I felt.
The husbands, good old Yorkshire blokes, all gave solid performances, though were very much supporting roles to the strong female cast.
Mention must be made of the three teenage roles, Isabel Caswell (Jenny), Tyler Dobbs (Tommo) and Danny Howker (Danny) who bring a fantastic comedy element into the production as the long-suffering teenage children of the WI women.
The set, beautiful in its simplicity, designed by Robert Jones, is an authentic Yorkshire country scene, complete with drystone wall and creaking gate. The indoor scenes are denoted by a lowered lighting bar and a wheeled-on piano, centre stage, as the lights fade on the outdoor scene.
There are some great musical numbers, orchestrated by Steve Parry and with musical direction from Toby Higgins, with witty lyrics advancing the plot, though the vocal qualities of the cast are somewhat variable. The songs fit seamlessly into the play structure, with thankfully no choreography whatsoever, allowing a natural and believable transition from script to song and back.
The famed photo shoot comes very near the end of the play, and is just hilarious from start to finish, quite rightly the absolute highlight of the piece. We move fairly swiftly to the wrap-up, in which the memorial settee they set out to raise money for, is unveiled, and Annie is presented with a plaque – they have in fact raised enough money to open a new hospital wing in John’s memory. Not a dry eye.
Then on to the final musical number, Sunflowers of Yorkshire, after which the entire audience is instantly on its feet. A perfect end to an uplifting evening.
Catch Calendar Girls The Musical at Leeds Grand Theatre, running until Saturday 1st September.
Guest review by Margarette Cartwright
Please note: The review is based upon a dress rehearsal of the production.
Photograph credited to John Swannell