The story of the Women’s Institute Calendar Girls is well known across the U.K and has already led to both a successful film and play of their lives. It is now also a musical, which is currently running in the West End before starting a UK tour and which I found to be a hugely satisfying visit to the theatre.
The Girls takes us to a small Yorkshire village and the lives and friendships of the women of its local WI branch. The musical’s first half sets the scene, as we see that they are all quite different women and yet you quickly gain a sense of their community bond, which is only made stronger once we learn of Annie’s husband John’s diagnosis and subsequent death from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. The second half is the journey from the initial calendar idea to its release, resulting in some of the funniest scenes I’ve seen on stage and a group of very brave women proudly bearing all!
I admit, before seeing the show, I wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy it. However, it’s actually one of my favourites so far this year. The script is incredibly witty and yet also deeply moving. Watching John’s fight with his illness, as his wife thinks about their life together and how she’d cope without him was heartbreaking and I found myself welling up quite often during the two hours, due to the powerful emotional story and its portrayal on stage.
Yet, it’s the balance of sadness and great amounts of humour that the show masters so brilliantly and Tim Firth and Gary Barlow’s music and lyrics are clever, heartfelt and crucially for a musical, immensely entertaining. I don’t think I’ve ever been crying with sadness one moment and then with laughter the next at any other show. It’s a testament to the writing and acting that The Girls can have such an impact on its audience.
The ensemble cast are truly terrific, with particular favourites of mine being Joanna Riding as Annie (beautifully capturing the pain of grief and yet the determination to have something good come out of it), Claire Moore as her best friend Chris (best summed up by her husband when he says he didn’t marry her for an easy path, he married her for crazy paving!), Claire Machin as Cora and Sophie-Louise Dann as Celia, the air stewardess turned golfclub wife, whose curves turn heads. Yet everyone else is vital too, adding another layer to such a close knit community, meaning scenes with the whole gang (the carol singing being a personal favourite of mine) are just as satisfying as more intimate scenes.
I didn’t see the play, but the Calendar Girls’ story makes a brilliant musical. It has a huge heart at the centre of its story and the result is a musical that makes you laugh and cry in equal measure and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for an entertaining night out. Sadly, The Girls has recently announced it will close in London on 15th July. I think this is great shame, as it is a show that is worthy of a place on the London stage. All I can say is go and see it while you still can! If you live outside London, keep an eye out for details of its 2018 tour.
This musical also continues to raise money for Bloodwise out of the ticket sales, merchandise and the ongoing bucket collections at the theatre, so you can have a wonderful night out and help raise money for an extremely important cause!
The Girls is playing at the Phoenix Theatre until 15th July 2017. It will begin a UK tour in 2018. For more information and ticket availability, visit its website here.