Tim Firth wrote the film and the play of ‘The Calendar Girls’ based on the true story of 12 members of the Rylstone & District Women’s Institute in Yorkshire who took their clothes off to produce an alternative calendar in memory of a friend (John Clarke). What made it a worldwide sensation was the ladies were over 50 and yes they were naked however there were strategically placed items from traditional WI activities, such as knitting, flowers, cakes and of course appropriately sized buns. They raised a phenomenal amount of money for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (bloodwise.org.uk).
Of course, raising the money was only the icing on the cake, as it was the journey of these women and the stories behind why each one went through with it. That’s what pulls at the emotions and why the film and play have been so successful. Now, Tim has teamed up with Gary Barlow to create a musical which had a West End run at The Phoenix Theatre and is now on tour around the UK.
Fortunately, Tim wanted a fresh take on the original story and not just the play interspersed with a few songs. The musical adds a different level to the story: where the character is alone with their thoughts, we get to hear that as a song, it’s also a method for more light and shade when music is involved and a very good opportunity for some comedic tunes to make us giggle.
The story unfolds over about a year and the passing of time is depicted easily and shows the growing illness of John in order to deal with his passing and the catalyst to the stories of these women. Friendships are strengthened, community spirit is enforced, confidences soared, women empowered, secrets admitted, tears and laughter shared, and time to squeeze in young love and pieces of life advice. It’s all jam-packed in.
In the programme it does state: The result is a musical score that is a patchwork quilt of songs that incorporate different bits of different songs. I have to agree with this. The opening number gives us a quick insight into all the characters with a depiction of their work, leisure and family life. It’s a big cast to get through and all singing a piece, which meant there was lots to take in and try and link up as to who was partnered with whom.
Most of the songs were pretty good, although for me, there wasn’t any catchy tunes that I was whistling as I was leaving. However, many others seemingly were. I couldn’t hear all the words, which no doubt would have made an impact for me in connecting to the characters. The musical scene I most enjoyed for depth was ‘My Russian Friend And I’ – a perfect blend of comedy and emotion.
The show was certainly a good length, and the story held a steady pace, especially as there was large cast and multiple stories to share. If I am honest, it took me a while to engage and warm to the characters. I couldn’t emotionally connect with all of them, and some of their stories could have more depth. Therefore the big ‘empowerment’ aspect of it was lacking for me, however I did warm up in the second half and enjoyed watching the characters reaching their potential.
The main scene, the naked photoshoot, was excellently executed and presented and was filled with warmth and comedy. With the storyline, the actors had to get their kit off at some point although with a cast of good quality names, I thought they might go for the flesh coloured underwear but the ladies did it! I guess they wanted to be honest to the story and what it represents, but they probably enjoyed their own feelings of confidence and empowerment by doing such a thing. Well done!
The supporting characters were all great. Plenty of light heartedness and comedy around the story which made it a very entertaining evening and worth going to see. The audience were chuckling, laughing out loud, cheering, sniffling and gave a standing ovation at the end.
Calendar Girls – The Musical is at the Ipswich Regent until Saturday 26th October. For more information or to book visit: ipswichtheatres.co.uk.