Calendar Girls the Musical

2nd to 6th July 2024

Gary Barlow & Tim Firth | Lichfield Garrick Theatre | Directed by Adam Lacey

Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s musical version of the film and play about a Women’s Institute group baring all for a charity fundraising calendar is a warm-hearted hit in Lichfield Operatic Society’s latest cheeky offering.

I confess to having reservations about a musical version of this much-loved story. Could it be put to song and retain respect for what is ultimately a poignant tale about the devastating effects of cancer? The answer is a resounding yes, although the score is not a particularly memorable one.

It’s been 25 years since the real-life ‘Calendar Girls’, a group of women from the Rylstone WI in North Yorkshire, produced their risqué calendar. Their courage and pluck continues to inspire: more than £5 million was raised for the Leukaemia Research Fund from sales of the original calendar and the musical incarnation is continuing the fundraising work with bucket collections at performances.

The 2003 film adaptation (starring Helen Mirren, Julie Walters and Celia Imrie) inspired a hit stage play 6 years later and in 2012 Gary Barlow and Tim Firth started writing songs for a musical version. It has been touring the UK since 2015 and continues to appeal to audiences thanks to its inspirational story of friendship, heartbreak and strategically placed buns.

Female solidarity is at the heart of the show although it also feels like a love-letter to Yorkshire, wonderfully captured in the full company opening number. Under Adam Lacey’s direction, we are immediately transported to the village of Knapely and the whole community is in fine voice. Vocals are strong across the board and Charlotte Jervis’ choreography is lively and slick throughout. Musical director David Easto has assembled a fine orchestra, delivering the score with gusto and precision, and the addition of a revolve in the centre of the set works well to keep the action pacey.

Kate Pilling is wonderfully natural and endearing in the role of Annie: the death of her husband John (an equally endearing James Pugh) inspires the fundraising calendar and we are emotionally invested from the moment we meet them. The solo numbers (‘Scarborough’ and ‘Very Slightly Almost’) are perfectly pitched and there’s convincing chemistry with Dawn Welch’s Chris, Annie’s closest friend who proposes the saucy calendar. Welch combines great comic timing with cracking vocals as firebrand Chris, refusing to conform to WI stereotypes – “I hate plum jam and I’m crap at cakes.”

Proving that WI members are a force to be reckoned with, the inner-circle of friends convince in their various roles. Heather Bustin’s Cora, single mum and piano-playing vicar’s daughter, combines wit with a belting voice and Lynne Hill is wonderfully mischievous as the ex-schoolteacher who defies age expectations by embracing the opportunity to pose “just as long as it’s no front bottoms”. Proud of her ‘enhancements’, Natalie Whittlesey is perfectly cast as a body-confident Celia and there’s great comic work from Rebecca Bowley as Ruth, who takes some convincing but eventually embraces the project and poses for the camera.

In a talented ensemble, Ethan Bowley and Jacob Fear are excellent as schoolmates Danny and Tommo and there’s promising sass from Amy Adams as new-girl Jenny. Jon Barakat is both charming and awkward as the photographer who agrees to take the shots but is more use to ‘wildlife.’

The shadow of cancer looms over the story but what emerges is a joyful celebration of community and friendship. An uplifting show which thoroughly deserved its opening night standing ovation.

‘Calendar Girls the Musical’ is playing at the Lichfield Garrick Theatre from 2nd to 6th July 2024.