A brand new, home grown and very British musical. That’s reason enough to celebrate surely! But more than that this is a story that has long been taken into the hearts of the Great British public and continues to do good through its awareness raising as well as fundraising. What more reason can there be to admire such a show. Of course there is the minor point that a certain national treasure and heartthrob in the name of Gary Barlow is the man behind the music, which may also be having an affect!
International superstardom aside it is a joy to report that Barlow has stayed true to this very English story of stoicism, bravery and community. He, along with writing partner and long-time friend Tim Firth, have created and crafted a beautiful show that never gives in to pathos despite being full of emotion. As befitting the original calendar girls themselves the musical has an elegant composure about it that never tries to be too showy and never tries to overegg the drama.
The story is well known already, not least because of Tim Firths already excellent work on both the film along with the subsequent play that has had both successful West End runs and record breaking national tours. Where the musicalisation of the story benefits however is the addition of music that conveys personality and emotion in a way that film or just the spoken word cannot.
Add into the mix the always very slick and high quality production values that are always insisted on by top producing partners David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers along with a classy ensemble of ladies that include some of the West End’s finest musical theatre talent of our time and we most certainly have a hit on our hands.
Firth navigates the emotions with a steady hand in a story that in the hands of somebody else could miss how uplifting it is despite the devastation caused by the passing of Annie’s husband John to Cancer. Of course the expertly played and bravely staged posing of the ‘nude’ calendar is hysterical and the comedy moments with the teenage children are magic. But it is in the relationships of the formidable WI members that the real inspiration, humour and perfectly depicted comradery fill the emotional cup.
Joanna Riding’s gentle but mightily strong Annie is a joy to watch and hear. Her determination to carry on and her clear love of the husband that has been taken away from her are beautiful. Claire Moore’s carefree Chris is a bold and brash performance that never totally loses the vulnerability about her. Debbie Chazen, Sophie-Louise Dann, Michelle Dotrice and Claire Machin all shine in their own way with their own unique but ultimately all slightly damaged ladies that are bonded through, not only the WI but some other fundamental need and insecurity within.
The designs by Robert Jones intertwine the domestic and the scenic in a landscape of cupboard doors befitting Barlow and Firth’s opening strains of one more year in Yorkshire. This is a musical that is homely, touching and created with love and is a fine testament indeed to those inspirational women of the WI that one day, nearly 20 years ago, decided to make a difference. They sure did!