Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2
Reviewed by Nikki Cotter
There can’t be many people who don’t know the magnificent story of the Rylstone & District Women’s Institute and their impressively innovative way of raising funds; but, if there are then lucky for them writer Tim Firth and long-time friend Gary Barlow have worked their collective storytelling magic to create a musical about the ground-breaking WI ladies.
When Yorkshire lass and WI member Annie (Anna-Jane Casey) loses her beloved husband John (Phil Corbitt) to leukaemia a seed is planted by best pal Chris (Rebecca Storm) to raise funds for a comfy sofa for the visitor’s room at Skipton General. These funds won’t be raised with a traditional raffle or tasty bake sale, but by the girls creating their very own ‘alternative’ calendar for distribution across the Dales.
There are tender moments throughout this moving piece, where tears threaten as the cruelty of life is played out, none more so than during Anna-Jane Casey’s emotional delivery of Kilimanjaro. These poignant moments are interspersed wonderfully with witty laugh out loud moments which firmly remind us that in life if we want to experience the highs we must also accept the heart-breaking lows.
As the idea of the ladies baring all inches closer to becoming a reality we see them wrestle with their own insecurities and daily battles offering the realisation that we all face similar difficulties and obstacles in life.
Firth and Barlow’s pairing is an impressive one, the script is warm, genuinely funny and entirely relatable while accompanying songs flow seamlessly as lyrical extensions of the script.
The reworking of this piece from its original 2015 incarnation sees some notable changes. The decision to opt for a celebrity based cast works well in part with each actor enormously likeable and engaging however the multitude of accents robs the production of its down to earth, grass roots charm and at times is distracting from the story. As the Yorkshire grit and determination is lost so its authenticity is watered down.
Likewise designer Robert Jones has scaled back the previous touring set, the green drawers and cupboards which created the rolling Yorkshire hills now replaced with a regularly opened gate, effective still but its impact not comparable.
Despite these quibbles Firth and Barlow’s superb storytelling still shines through as the cast take us on an inspirational story which turns tragedy into triumph.
Anna-Jane Casey and Rebecca Storm as best friends Annie and Chris are hugely impressive, pals through thick and thin their pairing is convincing and genuinely touching.
Karen Dunbar as Cara is hilarious, add to this a superb turn from the legendary Ruth Madoc who delights in every opportunity to raise a laugh.
There’s also a wonderfully written comedy sub-plot in which the younger members of the cast fight their own battles of teenage angst, first love and the absolute worst….embarrassing parents. Isabel Caswell, Danny Howker and Tyler Dobbs as Jenny, Danny and Tommo respectively are joyful to watch.
Calendar Girls portrays the inspirational story of the courageous women of Yorkshire with wit and genuine warmth, while there is sadness the bloody-minded defiance of these strong Northern women is there for all to see. Heart-warming in its delivery and inspiring in its message.
Calendar Girls is on at The Lowry until Saturday 10th November tickets available here.