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.
Leave a comment | tags: Birmingham Hippodrome, Calendar Girls - the Musical, Danny Howker, Gary Barlow, Julia Hills, Lesley Joseph, Lisa Maxwell, review, Sarah Jane Buckley, Sue Devaney, Tim Firth | posted in musical, Theatre Review
Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 1st May, 2018
Regular readers will know of my aversion to jukebox musicals and so it is with some trepidation that I approach this production. An out-and-proud Take That fan from way back, I had seen some of the auditions for the titular band in a BBC talent programme, and that wasn’t enough to put me off!
Not, as the woman behind me expected, the story of Take That, this is instead the tale of Rachel and her schoolfriends. The Band, a Take-Thattish quintet of handsome lads, form the soundtrack to their lives, and encapsulate their hopes and dreams. Teen Rachel (Faye Christall) cranks up their music to drown out her parents’ quarrels and escape her problems – boy band as metaphor for heroin, perhaps! When her best mate Debbie (Rachelle Diedericks) wins concert tickets, the group of girls set off on an adventure that changes their young lives. The other members are sporty Claire (Sarah Kate Howarth), promiscuous extrovert Heather (Katy Clayton) and swotty Zoe (Lauren Jacobs). We realise the show’s title refers not only to the omnipresent boyband but also to the rubber bracelets on which the girls swear undying friendship, in a kind of Blood Brothers move.
The boy band work as a kind of dispassionate Greek chorus, hardly ever off apart from costume changes – the songs don’t necessarily relate to the action or the characters – and it’s like a play with songs, until the characters start singing too and we’re launched back into musical theatre territory, although, even then, they sing because they want to, rather than to express emotion or character or to further the plot. And it doesn’t matter. The musical numbers are spectacularly staged – production values are high, indeed. Relight My Fire, for example, turns the last bus home into a chariot pulled by the band in Greek helmets, while jets of flame leap from the footlights…
The story jumps 25 years and forty-something Rachel has won a competition to see the band’s reunion gig in Prague. A reunion is on the cards and there is much humour and more than a little poignancy with the regard to the passage of time and the way life turns out. Rachel Lumberg is the keystone of the story as grown-up Rachel – with her partner Jeff (Martin Miller) the script takes a John Godber turn, with the relationship strife and the planned trip abroad. Jayne McKenna and Emily Joyce are good fun as the grown-up Zoe and Heather respectively, but it is the once-sporty Claire who steals the show and our hearts in a lovely portrayal by Alison Fitzjohn. Andy Williams (not that one) crops up again and again in a range of roles, each of them humorous in an economical, throwaway style that demonstrates his versatility and comic timing.
Tim Firth’s script channels Victoria Wood with its down-to-earth North-Western bathos, and Willy Russell in its female empowerment. There are plenty of laughs, more than a smattering of wit and a touching denouement that has me wiping my eye.
And the boyband? Wow. Selected for their vocal abilities, they also have to dance their socks (and in some cases their tops) off, in a dazzling and energetic display. Kim Gavin’s choreography evokes the pop videos of Take That and the boys (AJ, Nick, Curtis, Yazdan and Sario) seem tireless in their efforts. Very impressive.
Kim Gavin also directs, along with Jack Ryder, and they get the pace and feel of the piece just right, keeping us on the right side of sentimentality and teasing us with just enough nostalgia to set the scene while allowing this new story to have legs of its own. This charming, warm-hearted piece blends down-to-earth humour with spectacular staging and it all fits together beautifully for a show you’ll Never Forget.
The boys in the Band (Photo: Matt Crockett)
Leave a comment | tags: AJ Bentley, Alison Fitzjohn, Andy Williams, Birmingham Hippodrome, Curtis T Johns, Emily Joyce, Faye Christall, Jack Ryder, Jayne McKenna, Katy Clayton, Kim Gavin, Lauren Jacobs, Martin Miller, Nick Carsberg, Rachel Lumberg, Rachelle Diedericks, review, Sarah Kate Howarth, Sario Solomon, Take That, The Band, Tim Firth, Yazdan Qafouri | posted in Theatre Review