Vivienne Kennedy reviews Calendar Girls the Musical, playing at The Bristol Hippodrome until Saturday 20 July 2019
In 1999, following the death from non-Hodgkins lymphoma of one of their group’s husbands, the ladies of Rylstone & District Women’s Institute in Yorkshire created the Alternative WI Calendar to raise money to buy a new sofa for the visitors’ room at the hospital where he had been treated.
There were no photos of local churches or beautiful bridges on this calendar, instead it featured 12 tasteful nude photos of themselves, their dignity preserved by the careful placement of buns, jars of jam, flower arrangements, knitting and other products and crafts traditionally associated with the organisation. And it sold rather well, to put it mildly; funding far more than one sofa!
In 2003, Tim Firth turned their story into a film and then, five years after that, a play. They were both rather successful too. People really do love the Calendar Girls story. This time, he’s joined forces with Take That’s Gary Barlow, and they’ve turned it into a musical. To be honest, having loved the film and the play, I wasn’t sure it needed, or would benefit from, a third iteration, but it is nothing short of joyous.
Calendar Girls the Musical is a celebration of friendship, of female empowerment, of relationships (between friends… partners… generations), of tradition (and of breaking with tradition), and of Yorkshire (much praise to designer Robert Jones, who has created a beautiful set). It’s full of fantastic characters, not just the WI ladies but their husbands and children too, their stories written in a way that makes you care about each and every one.
It’s also full of fantastic songs, sung with such clarity you can hear every single word (not always the case in musical theatre). Each one tells us something about the individual characters, their backgrounds and their hopes and fears. Some make you laugh, some make you cry, some make you nod your head in recognition, some, particularly Mrs Conventional, keep playing in your head for hours after you’ve left the theatre.
The casting has been done exceptionally well. There’s believability in abundance and they look as if they’re genuinely enjoying themselves, which always makes the audience enjoy themselves too. I especially enjoyed Lesley Joseph’s performance as retired teacher Jessie, still able to make her former pupils behave themselves, even though they are grown women with teenagers of their own!
If one thing surprises me, it’s how quiet the theatre is, how many empty seats there are dotted around the auditorium. That may change as the reviews come out, so I would wholeheartedly recommend getting onto the Box Office sooner rather than later.
By the way, those ladies from Rylstone… so far they’ve raised over £5 million for Bloodwise, the blood cancer research charity.