Calendar Girls

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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.

The Wedding Singer

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Based on Adam Sandler and Tim Herlihy’s monster hit movie The Wedding Singer arrives at Manchester’s Opera House full of hairspray and highlights for one week only.

Recreating the storyline familiar to film fans where loveable lead singer of wedding band ‘Simply Wed’ Robbie Hart (Jon Robyns) gets jilted at the alter by brutal bride Linda (Hannah Jay-Allan) who decides wedding singing just isn’t cool enough for her rock chick ways. Waitress Julia (Cassie Compton) helps Robbie eventually see past his misery and realise perhaps he hasn’t sung his final wedding song just yet!

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The Wedding Singer bursts into life from the opening, full of high energy dance routines and powerful performances Chad Beguelin’s witty and sharp lyrics are an absolute joy. Chockfull of laugh out loud moments this production is cheeky, charming and full of sass! West End favourite Jon Robyns takes on the role of Robbie Hart and delivers it perfectly, his Somebody Kill Me had the audience howling with laughter, his woeful misery at being dumped reminding us all just how truly ridiculous love can be. His voice is smooth and strong and the chemistry between Robbie and Julia (Cassie Compton) is perfect. Former X Factor contestant Compton is sweet and soulful; her harmonies with Robyns are simply beautiful. The show also hosts another X Factor favourite, 2006 X Factor finalist Ray Quinn who is tremendous in the role of Glen, odious and arrogant Quinn steps into Glen’s 80’s loafers and braces with ease, sharp and snarling, looking like he’s just walked off the set of Wall Street with his slicked back hair and suitcase sized mobile phone.

Special mention must go to Ruth Madoc who plays Rosie, Robbie’s randy rapping Grandmother, Madoc is hilarious and looks like she’s having just as much fun performing as the audience are having watching the show. Her paring with George (Samuel Holmes) for Move That Thang is a scream. Holmes as George delivers witty one lines throughout the production and his specially written song for the Bar Mitzvah just has to be seen!

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Director and choreographer Nick Winston has delivered a real treat of a production, with some stand out scenes that deserve special mention, All About the Green which opens act two packs a punch with some slick choreography and dynamic staging whilst Single in contrast is stripped back and simple but enormously effective, as the males of the cast share their woes whilst gathered behind the bar displaying some clever and entertaining choreography.

The Wedding Singer is a high energy, action packed, feel-good production, with a strong cast and a highly memorable score, it’s an absolute riot of an evening. Grab your hair crimper; slap on your best blue eye shadow and hot foot it down to the Opera House to party like its 1985!

Tickets available here http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-wedding-singer/opera-house-manchester/

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Be My Baby

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Brooke Vincent makes her professional stage debut in Be My Baby, currently touring the UK with stops in Chesterfield and Bury St Edmund. The Coronation Street star is on home soil this week as the production sets up base at Salford’s Lowry Theatre, where it runs until 8th October.

Brooke has chosen well for her first major dabble into theatre, taking on one of the lead roles in Amanda Whittington’s play about teen pregnancy in the 60s. The period tale is a bitter sweet story of four young girls who form a bond after they are sent away in ‘shame’ to a convent for unmarried mums. Each from different backgrounds they hide away from society’s disapproving eyes until they give birth and return home, without their babies. As the play unfolds the audience laugh and cry along with Mary (Jess Cummings), Queenie (Brooke Vincent), Norma (Josie Cersie) and Dolores (Eva McKenna), as they share their stories with each other, keeping up their spirits and confessing sometimes shocking secrets.

The four actresses are all superb; Jess puts in a credible performance as well-educated Mary who wants to break out from the convent and survive as a single mum, Brooke oozes sass as ‘leader of the pack’ Queenie showing the girls the ropes and delivering some acidic one liners, Josie gives a heart-breaking performance as fragile Norma struggling to cope at giving her child away and Eva displays some great comic timing as she plays ditzy Dolores.

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Hi-Di-Hi star Ruth Madoc has also found a well suited role as the stoic ‘Matron’ of the convent. The 80s sitcom star manages to make the audience see the two sides of her character as she wrestles between her duty to make the girls do ‘the right thing’ and her sympathy towards the pain they are going through.

With scenes interlaced with well-known songs from the female icons of the sixties, such as The Ronettes and Dusty Springfield, Be My Baby has a nostalgic feel about it and at times you could imagine it being turned into a TV series, in the vein of Heartbeat or Call the Midwife. From the young teens in the audience to those who had grown up in the 60s the play manages to engage on all levels as they connect with the action onstage. There’s some great moments to watch out for as the pregnant young girls try to forget their predicament by singing along to Dusty tracks in the laundry room and some shocking revelations in act two.

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Not often does a play come around written for an all-female cast ( Charlotte Keatley’s My Mother Said I Should being one of them, along with Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls) so Be My Baby is a refreshing treat. It is also a harsh reminder of what the stigma was like to be an unmarried mum to be in the sixties and the unthinkable agony that many women went through went they were forced to give their babies up for adoption.

4-8th October The Lowry, Salford Quays, www.thelowry.com/drama