CALENDAR Girls The Musical has a bucketload of poignancy for Maureen Nolan.
As ever, the collection buckets will be out, raising funds for Blood Cancer UK from tomorrow to Saturday when the Gary Barlow and Tim Firth musical plays the Grand Opera House, York.
“It’s such a touching story, especially for my family, where cancer has played such a part – and still is,” says Maureen, who will be playing Ruth in Jonathan O’Boyle’s touring production.
Sister Bernie, who appeared in the play version of Calendar Girls, died of breast cancer in 2013; eldest sister Anne, diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time in April 2020, is in remission; younger sister Linda last year announced her cancer had spread to her brain.
“That didn’t make it more difficult for me to do the show,” says Maureen, who made her name as part of The Nolans, the Anglo-Irish family of singing sisters from Blackpool. “Calendar Girls is almost empowering, cathartic. People come up constantly afterwards with these very sad stories but they’re still smiling on the way out.”
Quick refresher course: Calendar Girls, the film, the play, now the musical, was inspired by the true story of Rylstone Women’s Institute members raising £5 million (and counting) for blood cancer research.
The story goes: Following the death to leukaemia of Annie’s much-loved husband, the ordinary women of a small Yorkshire Women’s Institute are prompted to do something extraordinary, whereupon they set about creating a nude calendar to raise money for charity.
However, upturning preconceptions is a dangerous business and none of the women are prepared for the emotional and personal ramifications they will face as the fabulous and funny calendar brings each woman unexpectedly into flower.
Explaining those audience smiles, Maureen says: “I think it’s because Annie, who loses her husband, does get over it, raising £5 million for this amazing charity. Life has to go on. People are weeping in the audience, but the reality is that cancer is a a massive part of life but is getting more curable. Like my sister Linda, who has had cancer since 2005 in different forms but is still enjoying life.”
Maureen, whose Grand Opera House appearances included Mrs Johnston in Willy Russell’s musical Blood Brothers in October 13, is joined on the 2024 leg of the Calendar Girls tour by stars of music, stage and television: Laurie Brett as Annie; Liz Carney as Marie; Helen Pearson as Celia; Samantha Seager as Chris; Lyn Paul as Jessie and Honeysuckle Weeks as Cora.
“I first got involved at the end of the summer last year, when they said, ‘would you have a chat with Tim [Firth] and the director, Jonathan [O’Boyle]?’. He’s a young man, 40 this year, who had to work with all these women, seven women of differing ages, menopausal and older, and I can’t imagine anyone handling it better. He never lost his cool,” she says of her rehearsal experience.
The cast had to work on a condensed version of Barlow and Firth’s original version of the musical, premiered at Leeds Grand Theatre in November-December 2015 under the title of The Girls (returning there on the 2023-2024 tour’s first leg last November) .
“They don’t have the children in the show now, with Tim wanting to concentrate on the women, not the back story, with new songs as well, so we were a little under-rehearsed when we opened after only three weeks,” says Maureen, who had seen only the film and an amateur production of the before taking on the role of Ruth.
“I had nothing to go on, having not seen the original musical, so I play Ruth like Mavis [Thelma Barlow’s Mavis Riley] from Coronation Street! Others think she’s a bit OCD-ish, but it turns out she’s had a mentally abusive relationship [with a philandering husband] and she’s hiding a drink problem.
“At first I didn’t think Ruth was in it much, but it’s about quality not quantity, and at my age [she will turn 70 on June 14] I get the chance to stand in the dressing room making tea – and Ruth has some great comedy lines.”
Maureen enthuses: “Along with Blood Brothers, it’s the best show I’ve ever done. We were laughing and crying throughout rehearsals: the writing is genius by Tim and Gary; like Willy Russell’s shows, you can’t go wrong.
“Between Tim’s words and Gary’s music, the songs are beautiful and uplifting, and the music really adds to the show. I’ve been in things that I wish I hadn’t been in, but I am so proud of this musical.”
Not least because of Ruth’s song, the tragicomic My Russian Friend And I, that ‘friend’ being the vodka bottle. “It’s a funny scene but then tragic: what people like her go through and yet keep hidden.”
Ruth ostensibly quaffs a drink to quell her fears of undressing, until the darker truth is revealed, but how did Maureen come to terms with the need to strip for the calendar photoshoot each show? “It was really funny because for about two weeks of rehearsals we didn’t really talk about it, and it became the elephant in the room!” she recalls.
“Then the director said there would be a meeting to talk about the photography scene – taking clothes off on stage was something I couldn’t imagine at my age! – but we talked about how much we would show, what we could wear, and then it’s one of those moments where you think, ‘oh, just get them off!’.
“It was all done so beautifully by our director, where we were really treated with respect. Every night, the tech team has to leave stage left.”
Back on the road, with four new cast members, after a winter break when she found time to appear as the Wicked Queen Cruella in Snow White in Cannock for a week, Maureen says: “I love, love, love going to York. It’s so beautiful.”
Calendar Girls The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, tomorrow (February 6) to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday matinees. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.