CALENDAR GIRLS – The Musical
Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 28th May, 2019
First came the calendar, then the film, then the play, and now this musical version. Original writer Tim Firth has teamed up with Gary ‘Take That’ Barlow to rehash the true story of a group of women whose charity calendar turned heads and raked in the dosh thirty years ago.
If this piece is anything to go by, the Yorkshire village of Knapley is inhabited by a homogenous bunch of deadpan Northern charmers, the women are almost uniformly blonde and the cuddly men are interchangeable. It’s a bit Stepford Wives, but funny. There are so many characters it takes a while to get a handle on who they all are.
When Annie’s husband’s cancer treatment fails to save him from the disease, her mates at the local Women’s Institute rally in support. Best mate Chris (Rebecca Storm) comes up with the idea of a nude calendar – in the best possible taste, of course – and some of the women require more persuasion than others. It’s a long time coming but the best scene of the night is the taking of the photographs, posed with some carefully placed props: plates of cakes, balls of knitting, all the accoutrements of the WI. While other scenes are mildly amusing, the photo-shoot is the highlight and brings the house down. It’s a moment of rejoicing, as the women celebrate body positivity and have a reet good laugh while they do it. It’s like The Full Monty without the social commentary or the economic imperative.
Sarah Jane Buckley heads the ensemble as the eventually-widowed Annie, a more staid counterpart to her best mate Ruth. Single parent Sue Devaney has the best singing voice but the Christmas Carol medley she has to belt out is a let-down: it’s just unfunny. Lesley Joseph is in her element as retired schoolteacher Jessie, supposedly respectable but game for a laugh when the crunch comes. Lisa Maxwell is suitably cocksure as the surgically enhanced Celia, and Danny Howker has some very funny moments as inexperienced teenager Danny – it’s a strong cast without exception but all the while I’m thinking they would be better served in the straight play version.
Barlow’s songs are serviceable but hardly memorable. Rather than adding depth to the piece, what they bring is length. Firth’s script aspires to but doesn’t quite reach the genius of the late, lamented Victoria Wood, using the bathos of domestic details to bring out the emotions of particular moments. Contemplating her husband’s death, Annie wonders who’ll take her to Tesco and argue about margarines with her.
The heart-warming story survives this treatment, and is still a crowd-pleaser to be sure, but (producers, take note) not every bloody film needs to be turned into a musical.