Benet Catty Productions

The Girls (WE 2017)

Feb 24, 2017


First there was the 2003 film. Then there was the 2008 stage play. Now the story of Calendar Girls gets a third incarnation as a musical. It can only be a matter of time before we see Calendar Girls On Ice.

With a script by Tim Firth and music by Gary Barlow of Take That, The Girls is a production that knows its target audience and grabs it with an appealing blend of charm, wit and cliche. Fans of subtlety, though, should see something else.
The true story of Calendar Girls is a wonderful and life affirming one. In the Yorkshire village of Cracoe, Annie Baker's husband John had just died of cancer. In mourning his loss, she resolves to try and raise some money for leukemia. She happens on the idea of herself and other members of the local chapter of the Women's Institute doing a nude calendar (nude, not naked - as is repeatedly clarified), albeit with any offending body parts concealed by the more typical WI fare of jams and flowers (hence the famous line "We're going to need considerably bigger buns"). Their plan is not to be salacious or even to gain publicity; as one of the women is quoted as saying "Even if we don't sell any, at least we'll have tried to do something."
It's a story of finding purpose amidst tragedy and of losing inhibitions in the service of devotion. In all three iterations it's also about the mores of a Yorkshire village community. The Girls also contributes three superfluous but amusing teenagers who have to come to terms with their relationships with their parents. They're an engaging trio and amusingly played, but their cheesey purpose is to bring a love interest to a story lacking in youth or conflict.

Pop stars writing musicals can go one of two ways. Boy George's musical Taboo (about his own life) swung both ways: a cult hit in London, a big flop in New York. Pet Shop Boys wrote a thrilling pop-synth score for Closer to Heaven but failed to find an audience. Elton John succeeded with Billy Elliot by writing a score not of pop songs but of period-inflected rock and working men's hymns which reflected the time and mood.

Gary Barlow places his score for The Girls resolutely in the easy listening bracket. Scarborough is a beautiful song and another, Brave, is a straightforward Take That anthem that sticks in the mind. But the score largely meanders in mid-tempo middle of the road B-side material, not helped by cheap-sounding orchestrations and unmotivated big finishes. Lighting designer Tim Lutkin's propensity to bathe people in vast beams of light as it they are on the X Factor doesn't help. Many people will like this kind of thing more than me, but it shouldn't be confused with high art.

Firth and Barlow are blessed with the cast they've assembled. Michelle Dotrice - once upon a time Betty in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em - is funny and truthful as the deadpan disapproving matriarch, and gets another of Firth's staple lines, "No front bottoms". Claire Moore provides typically good value too, although a sequence in which she lays out lots of flowers reminds us how much better the National Theatre musical London Road was, in which she was required to do the exact same thing at the exact same point in the evening.

The class act of the night, though, is Joanna Riding in the leading role of Annie. She's been one of the great British musical theatre actresses for twenty-five years, even surviving Andrew Lloyd Webber's flop musical Stephen Ward in which, as here, she had the only good song.

Firth, who also directs, keeps the show moving fluidly on Robert Jones' set of moving bookshelves without giving the material itself the narrative motor or visual interest that another director might have demanded. He also includes a couple of big misfires: a ghastly and unmotivated dance number around a van which is very embarrassing, and an incongruous solo about drinking which should have been cut long ago. Jones also provides a closing visual touch to the evening which is the naffest moment currently appearing in any London show.

That The Girls is money for old rope cannot be denied, but when the story is so compelling and empowering it is hard to object to another opportunity to experience it even if, here, it's been slightly fictionalised. There's room for a crowd-pleasing middlebrow show like this in London. And one can safely assume it'll be in residence there for a while before touring and being produced by amateur companies for the rest of time.

For me, though, the show is a bit like the calendar that inspired it: worthwhile and inspiring but with less on show than you might expect.

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