Over the past few months, I’ve heard numerous people asking whether a musical version of Calendar Girls had anything to contribute that the hit film and stage play did not. Having seen Tim Firth and Gary Barlow’s The Girl’s last night, I can reply now that YES! The Girls not only adds something to this remarkable tale but in doing so may well have a significant effect on the future of the British musical going forward.
The reason I say this comes from the unique way that this musical has been developed. Not only has the show been co-created by Tim Firth and Gary Barlow, but you get the firm impression that this is a writing partnership that works together in an altogether unusual way. The programme notes comment that “Tim would take all the songs that Gary produced and mix and match them – a verse here, a chorus there, to create new compositions to fit the story of the piece. The result is a musical score that is a patchwork quilt of songs” and that description is perhaps the best description of what has been brought to the stage here.
Not since Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers has a musical so successfully bought real Britain to the stage with all of the heart, sensibility and humour that a story such as this warrants.
One of the main reasons that this musical deserves to succeed is the incredible ensemble of leading ladies gathered on the stage of the Phoenix Theatre. To single out any single actress would be sacrilege, but in Debbie Chazen, Sophie-Louise Dann, Michaele Dotrice, Claire Machin, Marian McLoughlin, Claire Moore and Joanna Riding, and not forgetting Soo Drouet, Shirley Jameson, Jane Lambert, Victoria Blackburn and Jenny Gayner, the creators of this musical have gathered some of the finest of Britain’s musical theatre talent. There’s an earthy warmth throughout this show and each of these wonderful women reach into their inner beings to achieve the kind of truth that is sadly missing from musical theatre in many cases.
The men in this ensemble ain’t half bad either. Joe Caffrey, Jeremy Clyde, John Davitt, James Gaddas, Steve Giles, Frazer Hadfield and Maxwell Hutcheon are perfectly cast. They are also complemented by Chloe May Jackson, Ben Hunter and Josh Benson as the youthful element of this cast.
It is the perfect casting of the men and the younger members of this cast that bring out further facets of the characters of these wonderful women. Tommo (Josh Benson), Danny (Ben Hunter) and Jenny (Chloe May Jackson) each have relationships with their respective mothers that are heart-warming, real and in some cases diabolically funny.
Yorkshire is beautifully stylised on the gorgeous set designed by Robert Jones. It’s all looks so incredibly simple but it allows for Firth and Barlow to bring these remarkable characters front and centre without being swallowed up in spectacle which is really the last thing this tale needs.
Barlow and Firth have perfectly captured the show’s musical vocabulary. Musical themes, wonderful moments and pure moments of joy effortlessly fill the theatre. Richard Beadle, his orchestra and this cast work as a team to bring the magic of music into the theatre each night and it just works. I really can’t tell you why.
I left the theatre teared up with an almighty lump in my throat and the emotion of the show is still with me twenty fours later. The Girls is a superb night in the theatre. It’s a case study in how to tell a story with sincerity, humour and buckets of love. Don’t delay, go and see it for yourself!
Photos: Matt Crockett