The story of the ladies of Knapely Women’s Institute and their daring idea to raise money for their local cancer clinic by baring all in a controversial calendar was well-documented in the award-winning film that hit the screens some twenty years ago.
Writer Tim Firth was the author of the classic feel-good film and later decided to collaborate with hit-writing friend Gary Barlow to upgrade the tale of the Yorkshire lasses by turning it into a musical. The result – Calendar Girls The Musical – graces the Regent Theatre this week and provides a joyous evening of entertainment for the theatre-goer.
Annie (Tanya Franks of Eastenders fame) has a tremendously caring relationship with husband John (Colin R Campbell) but their lives are shattered by the news of John’s diagnosis of terminal leukaemia.
Annie gains some solace by attending the regular meetings of her local Women’s Institute alongside her friend Chris (Amy Robbins from The Royal). Chris is not really suited to the WI as she has no interest in the regular activities such as crafting and jam-making. Very much a loose cannon, Chris readily admits to only joining the other local women in an attempt to impress her mother-in-law.
It is, therefore, a huge shock when she wins a competition at the Spring Fair. However, there is another huge surprise up her soon-to-be discarded sleeve. Disappointed by the lack of comfort in the relatives’ room furniture when visiting John in hospital, Chris vows to raise enough money to purchase a new settee in her friend’s honour.
There is a problem. Previous fund-raising efforts have failed dismally to hit their targets so the mischievous Chris hits on the idea to make a version of a girlie calendar. Much to the disapproval of branch Chair Marie (Paula Tappenden), Annie and Chris attempt to persuade sister members Ruth (Maureen Nolan), Jessie (Lyn Paul), Celia (Marti Webb) and Cora (Honeysuckle Weeks of Foyle’s War) to join them to represent months of the year.
Unlike the film, the calendar shoot – performed by Chris’s husband and John’s mate (Rod Graham MacDuff) – is not just a part of the tale with rifts in the relationships appearing as the ladies promote their work in the USA. Instead – despite the highs and lows as the ladies blow hot and cold on the project – it is the ultimate in heart-warming, belly-laugh producing and superbly acted and directed climaxes that an audience would wish to see.
The other major difference between the film and stage production is, of course, the score. Barlow has provided music that allows the highly-talented cast to display the skills that have produced a host of chart hits through the years. He allows the performers to tell their stories with wistful and poignant lyrics that carry the audience through the feelings of hope, despair and loss to the relief of seeing light at the end of a tunnel. It allows the actors to express the resilience and femininity of their characters despite the advancing years. In short, the score was totally captivating.
The sunflower is the symbol of Calendar Girls. As John explains, it gained its name not because of its resemblance to the star but because it seeks out light and follows the sun through the day. This production showcases the fact that the human race – just like the sunflower – has the capacity and resilience to take all the bad things that life throws at us and still reach for the light.
A heart-warming and delightful production that induces laughter and tears in equal measure. It fully-deserved its standing ovation.
Calendar Girls The Musical continues until November 18th and has a running time of approximately 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.