“Why can’t we just do a raffle?” The story of how a group of Yorkshire WI members stripped off to raise cash for a memorial sofa, is now the stuff of legend.
Picked up by writer, Tim Firth, he turned the tale of their controversial nude calendar into a hit film and play.
Now there is a new date to add to the calendar. On Tuesday night The Girls musical opened in London’s West End, ensuring that the amazing efforts of the Rylstone Women’s Institute will continue to reap rewards.
Its producers announced at the end of the show that booking has already been extended until July due to the huge demand for tickets. I have a sneaking suspicion that it will be at The Phoenix Theatre, in Charing Cross Road, for a lot longer.
Firth himself has adapted, re-written and refined the story with boyhood chum Gary Barlow (yes, that one), the latter writing a string of melodic musical numbers for the show.
It’s not a full blown musical, with big, choreographed, production numbers and dancing girls, but more a play with music, which celebrates friendship, love and community far more than a story of one man’s tragic death from leukemia.
Listen to Barlow’s insightful, witty and pertinent lyrics. You’d almost think they’d been written by a middle-aged woman. He certainly expresses overwhelming empathy with the species.
Here voluptuous, former air hostess, Celia, frightened of losing her looks, admits “So I’ve Had A Little Work Done” to “increase her baggage allowance in her overhead locker”, and an exasperated former schoolmistress Jessie, berates the way the elderly are written off in “What Age Expects”.
But the big hitter comes in the first act when vicar’s daughter, single mum and choir-mistress, Cora, rebels against her reputation for godliness with a raunchy swing number “Who Wants A Silent Night?” which brings the house down.
The essence of the The Calendar Girls lives in every scene (the familiar quote “We’re going to need bigger buns!” still raising a laugh) but there’s more emphasis on Annie, whose husband, John, succumbed to the disease, instead of impetuous florist, Chris, who dominated the film, and, consequently, the play of the film.
There’s room for teen comedy from Cora and Chris’s hormonal sons, greater interaction between the husbands and the plot involves itself more with the lead up to the calendar than the after affects.
Of course, we still see the infamous photoshoot, and it is more hysterically funny and brave than ever. Here is a cast of predominantly middle aged women who come complete with love-handles, wobbly bits, cellulite and insecurities.
But every woman in the audience, and most of the men, applauded them and director, Firth, for continuing to cast, as he did for the play and film, women who reflect the reality of the nation’s fairer sex.
It’s refreshing and wonderful to see an accurate portrayal rather than size-8, toned and honed young actresses.
What dazzled was how proud and confident each and every one of the cast were with their moments of complete nudity, celebrated at length rather than hastily covered up with lighting, makeup and props.
Michele Dotrice, at 68 the eldest of the female cast, as Jessie, hides her modesty behind two skeins of wool; Claire Machin’s Cora is seen from behind at the piano; Sophie-Lousie Dann as the flirty, sexy cougar, Celia, does her best with a pair of Belgian buns; Joanna Riding’s Annie has a barrow of glorious flowers and a small watering can to stand behind; Claire Moore, as Chris, flaunts a flag and trophy while a drunken Ruth (Debbie Chazen) sprawls over a display of jam-making fruit.
The Girls is wonderfully acted, warm-hearted, uplifting, life-affirming (despite the subject matter) and compelling.
There are some brilliantly funny one-liners, earthy Yorkshire wit, and even dark, gallows humour from James Gaddas’ dying John.
It epitomises and celebrates the tenacity, courage, resolve and warmth of a group of people close to the hearts of both Barlow and Firth, and that they recognise with their homage, an extended opening number that’s simply called Yorkshire. It sets the scene for a very special show.
Tim Firth & Gary Barlow have earmarked a new date in The Calendar Girls success with the smash hit musical, The Girls, at London’s Phoenix Theatre.