Written By: Mark Armstrong
Date: November 27 2018
Location: Empire Theatre, Liverpool
Based on the movie of the same name, Calendar Girls is a musical with the screenplay written by Tim Firth and the music and song lyrics provided by Gary Barlow. The general story concerns the Women’s Institute and its members of various personalities, from the uptight and posh to the casual and outspoken. Somewhere in the middle lies Annie (Anna-Jane Casey), whose husband John (Phil Corbitt) is slowly beginning to suffer major health problems due to leukaemia. It’s a local community where everybody knows everybody else, from the members’ husbands to their sons and daughters. As such, it’s a jolly, vibrant environment with largely traditional ways of going about their business, though they do have an adventurous side to them, such as the naughty antics of the older women in their younger days, thus providing a conflicting example for their teenage sons once one of them, Danny (Danny Howker), starts to develop feelings towards local scallywag Jenny (Isabel Caswell), egged on by his mate Tommo (Tyler Dobbs).
They continue their usual activities, but then tragedy strikes as it becomes clear that John is losing his battle, and ultimately passes away from leukaemia. As you can imagine, both Annie and the whole WI are devastated, and it is only through conversations with her close friend and fellow member Chris (Rebecca Storm) that she begins to move on through her desire to raise funds for the purchase of a new sofa in the hospital’s visitor’s lounge. But the method by which they wish to generate cash is the eye-opener for the WI, as they wish to create a calendar with all of the members posing nude.
Given their traditional ways of thinking, the members are aghast at the suggestion, not least group leader Marie (Fern Britton), who is appalled at such a prospect. Others, such as Celia (Denise Welch), are a little more open to the idea as a way of showing off their assets, whilst Cora (Karen Dunbar) gets a bit confused, as she eventually states “Okay, I wouldn’t normally do this, but … I’ll buy a calendar to help!” Undeterred, Annie and Chris attempt to make this happen, but the WI led by Marie keep providing obstacles, all in the face of struggles with their love-struck teenage kids. It all leads to a major WI conference where, in front of Marie, the team put forth a strong argument that is defiant in the face of the WI’s usual beliefs, and so it appears that the calendar is on. But will the members hold their nerve to bare all, and will it ultimately be a success?
All of this is handled in a light-hearted manner, with the exception of the more emotional scenes which cover the passing of John, and includes a long, poignant moment of extended silence where not only the cast but the theatre as a whole become so quiet that you can hear a pin drop. It’s an easy story to follow, and it builds up to the major climax of the women giving the audience an eyeful in the process of, within the story, raising the money needed to make Annie’s dream become true in memory of John. There is a lot of humour to be found, and whilst it is hit-and-miss at times, and not all of the songs are exactly a home run, there will be moments for everybody to laugh out loud at some point.
The show was a slow starter, and the audio was a bit hard to hear at times with diction needing to be clearer, while it felt like the show could have been trimmed down a bit (though it forms the backdrop for the ideological struggle amongst Annie and co., the side-story of Danny chasing Jenny doesn’t have a lot of relevance to the main plot). Still, once we got down to the gist of the story, the show flowed pretty nicely. The star-studded cast helped to elevate proceedings, though Fern Britton appeared less than some may have expected. Yet the cast all shine in their own way, with several (perhaps Anna-Jane Casey the most) demonstrating some fantastic singing and acting skills. The men’s roles weren’t too prominent, understandable for a show where the females quite literally take centre stage.
The first half was enjoyable once it got going, but the second half was definitely better and livelier, not least because of the extended scene towards the end that almost all attendees will remember. There were some well-defined characters, with varied comedic performances amongst the cast, and it was certainly brave for the leading stars to show more than some may have expected! The use of props was clever, as well as some simple but effective country settings, and it ultimately provides the happy ending that all in attendance would hope for.
Summing this up, then, Calendar Girls is a fun night out, and a faithful recreation of the movie. Simply put, if you enjoyed the film, then you’ll have a fine time watching it play out in the theatre.
Overall Rating: 8/10 – Very Good