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T&L Reviews: Calendar Girls at New Wimbledon Theatre

Jenny Booth reviews Calendar Girls at New Wimbledon Theatre

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Take That‘s Gary Barlow visited New Wimbledon Theatre last night to check everything was still going well with his touring show Calendar Girls. He needn’t have worried.

The blockbuster musical rumbled into town trailing five star reviews behind it. Barlow’s heartfelt songs and his co-writer Tim Firth’s amusing script swept the Wimbledon first night audience along. There was a standing ovation at the end.

It’s a show with a lot going for it. The real life story captured the world’s imagination in 1999, when the ladies of Rylstone Women’s Institute bravely posed for a Pirelli-style nude calendar to raise money in memory of their friend’s late husband.

The 2003 film version with Helen Mirren and Julie Walters was very well received, and the stage play (both also penned by Firth) was a commercial hit. This latest take, in musical format, is not a carbon copy of either of the previous two scripts. Perhaps reacting to criticisms that the play version was a little thin, Firth spends more time building up the story in the first half, and fleshing out the second half by exploring the women’s individual struggles with social disapproval and self-doubt.

The current cast is full of experience. Ruth Madoc [Hi De Hi] is indomitable as elderly schoolteacher Jessie, Lisa Maxwell [Loose Women] is brassily confident as Celia who has “had a little work done”, while Sarah Jane Buckley [Hollyoaks] is persuasive as bereaved Annie. The great centrepiece scene of the photoshoot is hilarious, and while there were a few vocal wobbles last night the singing is generally good.

The show is beautifully staged, with a stunning backdrop of the Yorkshire Dales.

And yet, and yet. There is a sentimentality about the show that I found a little grating. Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington described the stage play as “shamelessly manipulative”, and I don’t think the musical has quite done enough to answer that criticism. It’s all a matter of personal taste, however, and judging by audience reaction to the show I was in the minority in feeling the script reached too readily for the easy wins.

2 – 5 October; 2.30pm & 7.30pm; from £13
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by Jenny Booth
@jennydotbooth /@culturevult