CALENDAR Girls The Musical had its belated York premiere in the reet Yorkshire hands of York Stage in April 2022 at the Grand Opera House.
Now its sunflower power radiates from a bunch of music, stage and television stars in Jonathan O’Boyle’s touring production, playing York with four changes of cast since its November run at Leeds Grand Theatre.
It was in this Leeds theatre that Take That head boy Gary Barlow and playwright and screenwriter Tim Firth – fellow sons of the Wirral and friends since teenage days – premiered their very Yorkshire yet universally appealing musical in 2015 under the title of The Girls.
Now toured by Bill Kenwright Ltd, O’Boyle’s 2023-204 production is a stripped-back version of the nude calendar story of a fund-raising group of North Yorkshire Women’s Institution villagers. Stripped back in that the three teenage children’s roles have been removed, although reference is still made to one.
The reasoning: Firth wanted to put the maximum focus on the women in the story, and given the presence of familiar faces (and voices) in the cast, from EastEnders’ Laurie Brett and Foyle’s War’s Honeysuckle Weeks to the New Seekers’ Lyn Paul and Maureen Nolan, that makes sense.
You surely know the story, as told previously in the 2003 film, scripted by Firth, and the stage play, but Barlow and Firth’s musical is even better, wittier too, the format suiting what is already an opera-scaled, tragicomic human drama of ordinary women at the centre of an extraordinary story.
When much-loved National Park wall builder and sunflower grower John ‘Clarkey’ Clarke (John R Campbell) dies from leukaemia, his wife Annie (Brett) teams up with Knapely Women’s Institute rebel Chris (Samantha Seager, from Coronation Street), her friend for 40 years, to raise funds to buy a new sofa for the relatives’ room at Skipton General.
They vow to defy the new but old-stick WI chair Marie (Liz Carney) by posing with fellow members for the nudie calendar in John’s memory, honouring his unbreakable call to be inventive and not to follow the well-beaten track.
The curtain, adorned with a giant sunflower, rises to a scene-setting ensemble anthem, Yorkshire, that resonates all the more in the county’s capital before Brett’s Annie sings the first part of a narrative song in three sections interwoven with further songs and scenes.
Each section tells John’s back story, accompanied by vignettes at home, in the village hall, at the hospital, that capture his humour, his spirit, his character, while charting the devastating path of his blood cancer and the creeping dread of what is to be lost.
Namely, the minutiae of marriage. Why we connect. Love, familiarity, companionship, routine, shared memories, the stuff of the show’s best song, Scarborough, and its Act Two sequel, Kilimanjaro, sung so powerfully by Brett.
To the wit and wisdom of Alan Ayckbourn, Victoria Wood and Willy Russell’s dramas, add Firth, a master of observant humour, northern nous and pathos, writ large here in both his dialogue and lyrics, accompanied by multi-faceted tunes from ballad king and pop puck Barlow, whose keyboard-led compositions so suit the vogue for story-telling, highly emotional musical theatre.
One by one, we meet Brett’s grieving but resilient Annie; Seager’s agitated, brazen Chris; Weeks’s piano-playing Cora, the vicar’s no-nonsense daughter; Helen Pearson’s reupholstered, flashy Celia, the golf-loving former air hostess; Paul’s Jessie, wise-owl ex-teacher and knitting enthusiast, and Nolan’s reserved Ruth.
Each is a given a character-revealing, story-telling solo number, each met with abundant applause from Wednesday’s enthusiastic matinee crowd. Weeks’s Hallelujah Silent Night is a Christmas blast; Pearson’s confessional So I’ve Had A Little Work Done is both cheeky and defiant; Paul’s What Age Expects is all-knowing, and Carney’s Spring Fete is assertively strict, her Mrs Rebellious, scornful. Bloody-minded ‘Yorkshireness’ is everywhere.
In her interview, Maureen Nolan talked of her role as being about “quality over quantity”, and no song is better delivered than My Russian Friend And I, as Nolan’s Ruth reveals how vodka is more present in her life than her philandering husband.
Firth’s writing is matched by the chemistry of Brett’s Annie and Campbell’s Clarkey, whose parting has the audience reaching for tissues. Equally as affecting is the bond of Annie and Chris, as the strains and stresses of friendship play out under the utmost duress.
Calendar Girls is about more than the Girls, even if the men’s roles have been reduced to Campbell’s Clarkey and professional debutant Andrew Tuton’s Rod, the photographer with the idea for the now notorious calendar.
Firth’s best decision is to mirror The Full Monty in making that photoshoot the climax, each month’s calendar girl strip-off greeted with a yet bigger cheer or whoop.
O’Boyle’s direction is equally strong on individual characterisation and teamwork, complemented by Jos Houben’s movement direction on an open-plan set radically different from the 2015 premiere, where Robert Jones built Yorkshire as a green and pleasant Jerusalem with hills made from furniture that turned into doors and prop cupboards too.
Gary McCann favours a more conventional design ideal for touring: a village hall with a kitchen to one side and a Yorkshire Dales skyline beyond the doors and windows, the structure taller to the front, the floor an open expanse to accommodate a piano, a sofa, hospital signage, a meeting of the WI national federation, or a home, whatever each scene demands.
Hurry, hurry, make room on your kitchen calendar to see this Yorkshire story of tears and cheers, grief and loss, spirit and renewal, humour and humanity, cakes and buns, songs and sunflowers.
Performances: 7.30pm, tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm and 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: atgtickets.com/york