The true story behind Calendar Girls – and the inspiration for a movie, play and musical – is, by now, pretty well known. Back in 1999, the ladies of the Women’s Institute in Cracoe, Yorkshire, decided to make a nude calendar to raise funds in memory of a close friend and fellow member’s husband, who had recently died of leukaemia. What started as a fun idea to raise a few pounds soon hit the headlines, and to date the real life Calendar Girls have raised nearly £5 million for blood cancer research charity Bloodwise.
What captured the public’s imagination about the Calendar Girls was the fact that here were ordinary women doing something extraordinary. Tim Firth and Gary Barlow’s hit musical (which ran for a surprisingly short time in the West End despite great reviews and obvious popularity) has the same spirit; like its characters, it’s refreshingly genuine and down to earth, with a cheeky sense of humour as an added bonus. It’s also quite the rollercoaster, with desperately sad moments followed almost immediately by scenes that have the audience howling with laughter – the most notable of which, unsurprisingly, is the legendary nude photo shoot that brings the evening to a joyous conclusion.
The ensemble cast exudes warmth and familiarity, making you believe they really have been friends for years, and there are great performances all round. Sara Crowe is touchingly vulnerable as shy Ruth, who throws herself into the WI to escape her troubled marriage, and Fern Britton hits just the right note as snobby Marie, who’s horrified by the potential damage the calendar could do to her WI’s reputation. There’s some great work too from younger cast members Isabel Caswell, Tyler Dobbs and Danny Howker as teenagers Jenny, Tommo and Danny, who have their own problems to deal with. But the standout performance comes from Anna-Jane Casey as Annie, a beautifully written character whose grief over the loss of her husband is rooted not in grand gestures but in the little details that you never think about until someone isn’t there any more.
The score, like the story, combines rousing ensemble numbers with solo performances and though all are well performed, the former are generally far more memorable than the latter – with highlights including the opening number Yorkshire, an uplifting anthem to the community’s northern home. The setting is an important part of the story, and Robert Jones’ simple rustic set of rolling hills and glorious sunsets makes an attractive and fitting backdrop. And yes, maybe the plot sometimes feels like it’s moving at rather a sedate pace, but that somehow doesn’t feel inappropriate given the rural setting.
Calendar Girls is a charming and very British musical that tells this heartwarming true story of love, loss, courage and friendship with just the right blend of humour and pathos. It’s sometimes a bit naughty – be prepared to get a little more than you may have bargained for in the final scene – but there’s considerably more depth to the story and characters than you might expect. All in all, a really enjoyable evening’s entertainment, and great to see a British musical flourishing.
Calendar Girls is at the Orchard Theatre until 16th March.