The Girls, a musical comedy based on the original story of the 1998 Calendar Girls has arrived, and with it droves of raucous middle aged women. Achieving not only a standing ovation during my visit; but also squeals, cat-calls and indeed full on screaming, the subject of women of a certain age getting their clothes off appeals – and indeed why the hell not?
Written by Tim Firth and Gary Barlow, The Girls tells the story of the inhabitants of Knapley in Yorkshire; and of course, the lives of the seven members of Knapley’s own Women’s Institute: Annie (Joanna Riding), Ruth (Debbie Chazen), Celia (Sophie-Louise Dann), Jessie (Michele Dotrice), Cora (Claire Machin), Marie (Marian McLoughlin) and Chris (Claire Moore). When Annie’s husband (James Gaddas) dies of cancer, her and best friend Chris decide to raise funds to buy a new sofa for the hospital in which he was treated. After much conflict between the women, who are all dealing with their own familial or personal problems, they come together to bare all to complete this nude calendar.
The show begins with the entire town coming together for a rendition of Yorkshire. Alive with speeding cars, trees falling from the skies, Yorkshire hills, summer fetes, and Christmas parties, Robert Jones, the set and costume designer, absolutely excels throughout. Whether it be the Dickensian themed carol singing, engineered by Marie (the domineering head of WI); or the cakes piled high on the dales for the annual Victoria sponge competition, Jones brings to life the varying seasons with real imagination.
The score is similarly on the whole very impressive. Who Wants a Silent Night, sung by Cora (a hilarious protest against village convention) is lively, irreverent and very well choreographed by Lizzi Gee (Pride, Billy Elliot). Dare and Sunflowers, a pair of ensemble ballads are similarly catchy and memorable. Dann shines as Celia, the big breasted ex air-hostess, whose low cut blouses cause consternation among the golf club women. She imbues the character with great soul, drawing whoops from the audience for her rendition of So I’ve Had a Little Work Done. Chazen as Ruth, the insecure wife of a cheating husband with a penchant for Russian vodka, sang a brilliant rendition of My Russian Friend and I. The quality of the score takes a fall with the long-winded, and depressing If You Won’t, sung by Annie, performed in a boringly safe way by Joanna Riding.
It would have been great if more time had been given to each female character to develop them and make them more distinct, and less time spent on the grieving of Annie’s husband. Indeed, it feels at points – in terms of the writing – that Firth (the screenwriter for the hit 2003 film) never lets go of the fact it is no longer a play or a film, but a musical. He attempts to combine the fantasy, over the top nature of a musical with the realities of cancer and grieving, which even the most skilled writer would find hard to do. Whilst such subjects are important, it doesn’t feel appropriate, and had the unfortunate effect of dampening the good feeling of the rest of the show.
All in all it is an enjoyable watch. Jones’ production is great, Dann is brilliant, some of the ensemble ballads are impressive, and the moment where the cast bare all at the end was great fun. Firth’s script, however, is confused and feels overly complicated. It may not prove to be a permanent fixture on the Musical Theatre scene, but it is a fun show and Barlow is undeniably a very talented songwriter. Most significantly, if the concept of middle-aged women getting naked is so absurd and funny then it is a sure fire indication that such subjects should be explored more in theatre, and the arts in general.
The Girls is playing the Phoenix Theatre and is currently booking until July 15.
Photo: Matt Crockett, Dewynters