REVIEW: Calendar Girls The Musical (New Wimbledon Theatre) ★★★★

Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls The Musical began life at the Grand Theatre in Leeds at the end of 2015 before transferring to The Lowry, Salford in January of 2016. This production entitled simply The Girls then transferred to West End opening at the Phoenix Theatre in January of 2017 and ran until July of that year. Shortly after the West End run, it was announced the musical would embark on a UK Tour in 2018 and changed its named to the more widely recognised Calendar Girls The Musical. As the UK tour continues through November 2019, London audiences are able to visit the Knapely Women’s Institute once again and see the award-winning Calendar Girls The Musical as it visits the New Wimbledon Theatre.

​Inspired by a true story, the award-winning 2003 film and 2009 play, Calendar Girls The Musical follows a group of ladies from the Knapley Woman’s Institute. After one of their members husbands passes away from leukaemia, the branch hit upon the idea of printing a calendar in order to purchase a comfortable settee for hospital where he was treated. To ensure the Calendar sells, one member suggests they pose nude while engaging in traditional Women’s Institute activities, such as baking and knitting. This outrageous idea is met with great scepticism, but eventually the women participate in the project and their calendar is born. Calendar Girls The Musical shows life in their Yorkshire village, the effect the project has on husbands, sons and daughters and how a group of seemingly ordinary ladies achieved something extraordinary.

This touring production of Calendar Girls features Sarah Jane Buckley (Blood Brothers and Kathy Barnes in Hollyoaks) as Annie, Sue Devaney (Years and Years, Jane in Dinnerladies, Liz Harker in Casualty, Debbie Webster in Coronation Street and Rosie in Mamma Mia!) as Cora, Julia Hills (Doctor Kemp in Broadchurch, Annabelle Shrivener in The Archers) as Ruth, Judy Holt (Cold Feet, Scott & Bailey) as Marie and Lisa Maxwell (panellist on Loose Women, Tracey Donovan in Hollyoaks, Samantha Nixon in The Bill and various roles in The Les Dennis Laughter Show and The Russ Abbot Show) as Celia, Ruth Madoc as Jessie and Rebecca Storm as Chris.

As Annie, Sarah Jane Buckley gives an affecting performance. Losing her husband to cancer early on in the story, the actor playing Annie needs a subtle power in order to portray the characters journey, making her human and easily relatable. Buckley achieves this almost immediately and the audience is drawn into the story, feeling for her character throughout. As single mother Cora, Sue Devaney shines. Devaney’s energetic performance is equal parts hilarious as it is touching and the relationship she has with hormonal son Tommo, played with rigor by Tyler Dobbs, is moving and believable. Julia Hills as the apprehensive Ruth gives a rollicking performance. Ruth is only able to join the ladies cause after meeting her “Russian friend”, at the bottom of a bottle and Hills enjoys her song My Russian Friend and I explaining her plight.

Judy Holt as Marie, the conservative chair of the Women’s Institute, is the perfect authoritative figure. Giving her daughter Jenny, played with defiant cheek by Isabel Caswell, many reasons to revolt, Holt doesn’t take the character too seriously and the audience is able to disagree with her reasoning while also understanding it. Lisa Maxwell gives a fun performance as Celia. Admitting I’ve Had A Little Work Done, ex-air hostess Celia has her own reasons for considering the calendar and Maxwell explores these in a refreshingly human way. Ruth Madoc as Jessie is a triumph. Quietly stealing every scene and having some of the best one liners in the show “No front bottom!”, retiree Jessie proves she never does What Age Expects and Madoc relishes a character for a women of a certain age with nuance and substance.

Rebecca Storm gives a dynamic performance as Chris. Having the initial idea for the calendar, Chris deals directly with the effect the calendar has on her husband Rod played with affection by Ian Mercer and son Danny played brilliantly by Danny Howker and finds a stronger relationship with both as a result. As Annie’s friend of 40 years, the relationship between Annie and Chris is at the heart of the story and Storms does an excellent job exploring this relationship to create a Chris that is defiant, loyal, loving and a true and believable friend, mother and wife. Brava!

While Gary Barlow’s music may not be memorable, his score is used effectively to add another dimension to the story we all know and love. As he did with the film and play, Tim Firth’s brilliant book is the focus of the musical as he creates laugh out loud dialogue and characters the audience can emphasise with form the beginning of the show. I found myself slightly disarmed at how much I felt for the characters very early on, which made the death of John heart-breaking and the ladies triumph charmingly empowering.

A testament to the longevity of Calendar Girls the film, play and now musical, the real life inspirations behind the story have now raised over £5 million for Bloodwise, the UK’s specialist blood cancer charity. Hilarious, heart-felt and a little bit naughty Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls The Musical is a lovely night out. With sincere and brave performances, the cast portray this empowering true story with reverence and I left the theatre inspired and elated.

Reviewed by Stuart James


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