Calendar Girls The Musical at The Festival Theatre Edinburgh (Tue 02 to Sat 13 October) brings the story of that now famous Women’s Institute “Nude Calendar” to life in music and song. If the reception by the audience for the show tonight is any indication of what lies ahead for this run, then The Festival Theatre and Calendar Girls have a huge hit on their hands.
For anyone out there not familiar with the phenomenon that is “The Calendar Girls”, then a little background is allowed in this review as the story behind it all is still at the beating heart of everything. This is the true story of a simple, and at the time considered by many insane, idea that rapidly escaped from a small circle of friends to become a national, then international story along the way.
Like many of the great ideas, Calendar Girls was born out of a mixture of tragedy and necessity. In a close knit community in the rural picture postcard village of Cracoe in Yorkshire, the women of the local Women’s Institute were shocked and saddened when one of their members, Angela Baker, had her world shattered when her “fit and healthy” husband John was at 53 years old diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in February 1998. The illness and subsequent death of John brought about the idea by one of Angela’s friends to try and raise funds for leukaemia research. To do this, they returned to an earlier light-hearted suggestion that members of the local Women’s Institute, that most conventional of British institutions, would pose nude for a calendar to help to raise the funds. From this idea, a hugely successful charity calendar, a film, a stage show, and lastly a musical have taken the world by storm and raised millions of pounds for blood cancer research charity Bloodwise along the way. Writing this review, I have to admit that I was surprised to find out the WI was originally founded in Canada,
Calendar Girls The Musical is not a literal presentation of this story, but one obviously adapted for the medium that it is working in. Everything does still however evolve around the core fundamentals of the original story - the death of John, the friendship between the women, the Women’s Institute and the community and landscape of rural Yorkshire. Bringing this musical into life are the combined talents of Gary Barlow and Tim Firth (from the film Calendar Girls) as writers and Matt Ryan as director. Gary Barlow is of course known to millions of people as one of the most successful songwriters of his generation, and here the collaboration with Tim Firth has taken him away from the normal structure of creating a three minute “hit song” to a far wider and more operatic scope. Together the two have also musically and lyrically cut and pasted ideas to form a musical patchwork that tells not only a story, but identifies individual characters. David Bowie also used a cut and paste approach to his music in the 1970s, so the idea is not new, but it can produce surprising, and often unexpected results. At the heart of all of this music though, an anthem to Yorkshire itself, appropriately called “Yorkshire”.
Add into this production our “Calendar Girls” cast of Fern Britton, Anna-Jane Casey, Sara Crowe, Karen Dunbar, Ruth Madoc, Rebecca Storm and Denise Welch, and you have a core cast with a huge catalogue of performance work behind them giving the experience needed to bring a show like this to life. Phil Corbitt, Ian Mercer, Alan Stocks and Sebastian Abineri as our WI husbands and Derek Elroy as our calendar photographer also bring much to this story. A teenage sub story also runs throughout our main one and Tyler Dobbs, Isabel Caswell and Danny Howker get to interweave their stories with that of the main characters here.
On paper, everything looks perfect here, and the show has already been a huge success, but it is not a perfect show. One obvious issue is that charming as the idyll of a picture postcard rural Yorkshire landscape and community is, so much of the emphasis is on this image both musically and visually, and whilst this is obviously an important core element to this story, it does lose a little of that impact taken outside of its native surroundings For some reason I also expected more clearly identifiable and defined songs from Gary Barlow, but the songs and musical score have a great similarity to them. There are no significant songs I walked away from firmly lodged in my mind as “the song from the show” upon leaving the theatre. In all fairness though, reviewing a musical for the first time can be a bit like observing a jigsaw puzzle being put together; you have to step back a little to see the whole picture, and I know there are many songs with incredibly sensitive and poignant lyrics that I am going to have to go back to and revisit, and probably along the way completely revise my thoughts on the music here at a later time. “Yorkshire” is of course one song you cannot escape from here as it weaves throughout the whole production, but “My Russian Friend and I” is a very clever approach to a very sensitive moment in the story of one of our women.
All of our “Calendar Girls” cast are excellent here, but the first act does take a while to establish the story and who everyone is. The second half, by contrast, is far stronger and we are far more into the familiar story that many of us know. The teenage “first love”, teenage rebellion/angst story element never really works for me (even though it does impact on the main story) and distracted from the core story a little.
The one obvious thing about “Calendar Girls” though was the audience. This story, and the events in it, means so much to so many people. Calendar Girls is not a simple story, it is something that many millions of people for whatever personal reason have taken completely into their hearts, and the standing ovation at the end was an obvious expression of just what this story means to people. I think it also fair to say that although not exclusively, Calendar Girls is very much a women’s show and a celebration of just what “real” women can achieve irrespective of age, body shape, education or perceived social class. Calendar Girls is the story of the everyday person achieving the remarkable.
Also just as important as the story is the continuing raising of awareness of blood cancer and the continued raising of funds for the Bloodwise charity. It looked like the charity fund raising was being just as successful as the show tonight -the two really are inseparable.
Review by Tom King