Calendar Girls, The Musical, York Stage, Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday. Performances: 7.30pm, tonight to Thursday and Saturday; 4pm and 8pm, Friday; 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York
HAVE you been struggling to buy sunflowers in York since Friday?
The reason is simple: these sunworshippers have taken up residence at the Grand Opera House, spreading all over a teenage party dress and a gloriously OTT sofa in director-producer Nik Briggs’ scenic and costume design too.
Even in the dark of the orchestra pit, a sunflower can be spotted radiating nocturnal sunshine from musical director Jessica Douglas’s stand.
Calendar Girls The Musical began life as The Girls when premiered by sons of the Wirral Gary Barlow and Tim Firth at Leeds Grand Theatre in December 2015. Now the Yorkshire sunflower power has been restored for the York premiere by Briggs’s company.
If you missed the Leeds debut, jump at the chance to remedy that error! If you loved the film or the stage play, Barlow and Firth’s musical is even better, the format suiting what is already an opera-scaled human drama of ordinary women at the centre of an extraordinary story.
What’s more, as Briggs says: “Having Yorkshire actors playing these roles in a theatre in York creates a real gravitas to the story. It could work anywhere, but it’s just a bit more special done here as it’s a proper Yorkshire tale.”
You surely know that story, the tragicomic one where gentle gent, National Park wall builder and sunflower grower John Clarke (Mick Liversidge) – spoiler alert – dies from leukaemia .
Whereupon his wife, Annie (Jo Theaker), teams up with Knapely Women’s Institute rebel Chris (Julieann Smith) to defy the new but old-school WI chair Marie (Maggie Smales) by posing with fellow members for a fund-raising nude calendar in John’s memory – and in his spirit of being inventive and not following the well-beaten track.
Firth and Barlow open with two big hitters, firstly the scene-setting ensemble anthem Yorkshire, then the character-establishing introduction to The Girls, the diverse members of the WI, in Mrs Conventional.
So, we meet not only Theaker’s grieving but resilient Annie and Smith’s agitated/aggrieved Celia, but also Rosy Rowley’s Cora, the vicar’s no-nonsense daughter; Tracey Rea’s reupholstered, flashy Celia, the former airhostess; Sandy Nicholson’s perma-knitting Jessie, the wise-owl ex-teacher, and Juliet Waters’ reserved dark horse Ruth.
One of the joys of ballad-king Barlow and witty-worded lyricist Firth’s musical structure is how every one of the Girls has a knock-out, character-revealing, storytelling solo number, each drawing cheers and bursts of clapping, especially Rowley’s rousing, big-band blast of Who Wants A Silent Night?, Smith’s assertive Flowers, Rea’s exuberantly humorous So I’ve Had A Little Work Done and Waters’ vodka-guzzling My Russian Friend And I.
Theaker, so consistently excellent in York Stage lead roles, plucks the heartstrings in the stand-out ballad Scarborough and later hits the emotional heights again in Kilimanjaro. Her chemistry with Liversidge is utterly lovely, touching too, making Clarkey’s loss all the harder to take. Likewise, Theaker and the feisty Smith capture the strains and stresses of friendship under the utmost duress.
Calendar Girls is not just about the Girls, but the men too, from Chris’s level-headed husband Rod (Andy Stone) to humorous cameos for the ever-reliable Craig Kirby (Denis) and Graham Smith (Colin), and Finn East’s how-about-we-do-it-this-way photographer, Lawrence, sensitively venturing into new territory as much as his subjects.
Not only does Firth’s script strike the right balance of northern humour, pathos, sadness and bloody-minded defiance, but also he places the stripping-off photoshoot as the climax (mirroring The Full Monty) and brings three teenage children to the fore, both as outlets for awkward, growing-pains humour and to expose their parents in a different light.
Danny Western is lovably cheeky as deluded, cocky workshy Tommo; Izzie Norwood affirms why Mountview Academy of Theatre awaits her in September with an assured, eye-catching York Stage debut as Jenny, the WI chair’s daughter, expelled from her posh school, with her wild, rebellious outsider streak still untamed.
No wonder Sam Roberts’s clean-cut, gilded path to being head boy takes a wayward turn as too-cool-for-school Jenny initiates his discovery of alcohol. Roberts’s understated performance contrasts joyfully with Western’s ebullience as the young lads eggs each other on.
Briggs’s lucid, fast-moving direction places equal stress on the potency of the dialogue and the emotional heft of the songs, while his stage design combines dry-stone walls and Dales greenery with open-plan interiors for WI meetings, homes and the hospital, thereby evoking the vast expanse of Yorkshire yet suited to intimate conversation too.
Jessica Douglas’s keyboard-led musical forces do Barlow’s compositions proud, with Robert Fisher’s guitar, Georgia Johnson’s double bass, Graeme Osborn’s trumpet and Anna Marshall’s trombone all given room to flourish.
A quick mention for Louie Theaker, who stepped in for the temporarily indisposed Danny Western for Friday’s first performance, rehearsing his part from 5pm to 6pm as he called on his experience of learning TV script re-writes pronto for his regular role as Jake in CBBC’s children’s drama series James Johnson.
Audiences have not been as big as expected, but what folly it would be to miss York Stage in sunflower full bloom in a Yorkshire story of tears and cheers, grief and loss, spirit and renewal, humour and humanity, ace songs and cracking performances.