Review: Calendar Girls the Musical

Review: Calendar Girls the Musical

By Jenny Booth

Four stars

The new UK tour of the hit musical Calendar Girls has floated into New Wimbledon Theatre, as light and golden and quintessentially English as a Marks and Spencer Victoria sponge sandwich.

Like Marti Webb’s character Celia, the show has “had a little work done” since the last time it was in town, and the result is a pared back plot, with some songs and dialogue rewritten and peripheral characters deleted.

Most noticeably, co-writers Gary Barlow and Tim Firth seem to have significantly toned down the clash between the members of a small Yorkshire branch of the Women’s Institute and their president, Marie. Judgemental and relentlessly polka-dotted, the role of Marie (Paula Tappenden) is to vigorously oppose the central scheme to pose for a nude calendar in memory of Annie’s late husband John (played with elegiac charm by Colin R Campbell), before eventually changing her mind at the very last minute.

I remember being surprised at the vitriol in the portrayal of the row in the earlier production, given that the plot is based on true events whose participants and their families are still alive. Fortunately for the drama one enjoyable confrontation does remain, when a pink-faced and quivering Marie delivers a takedown to the flamboyant Chris (played with gusto by Amy Robbins), accusing her of dreaming up the calendar scheme in order to show off. But with the home truths and the conflict largely removed, the show now concentrates more on each woman as an individual.

As the plot moves towards its funny and heartwarming climax in the photography scene, each of the main characters symbolically bares some of her secrets and sorrows in a solo as she hesitates over the scary notion of taking her clothes off and literally going bare for public viewing. These songs feel a bit like confessionals: my particular favourite was the unexpected ode by perfect scone-maker Ruth (Maureen Nolan) to the “fiery kiss” of her “Russian friend” – the vodka bottle that sees her through the lonely nights when her husband is neglecting her.

As retired schoolteacher Jessie, Lyn Paul’s defiant song about not giving in to getting old was much enjoyed by the audience. Even more touching is the song where a soon-to-be-widowed Annie (Tanya Franks, of Broadchurch and EastEnders) agonises over how she will survive without all the small kindnesses that John has brought to 30 years of marriage.

But director Jonathan O’Boyle delivers the heartbreak in the plot with a delicate touch rather than ramming it down our throats, and the overwhelming emotions from the show are of warmth, wisdom and positivity.  Musical director Jordan Alexander and his five-piece band contribute sensitively to the atmosphere and play with an alacrity that keeps the pace moving briskly. And Gary McCann’s painted backcloths and simple set of a wooden church hall are perfectly in keeping with a show that is a celebration of rural Englishness and have-a-go amateurism at their finest.

Each performance raises funds for Blood Cancer UK. 

Find Jenny Booth on socials: @jennydotbooth / @culturevult