As a musical enthusiast, I jumped at a last-minute opportunity to see the new rendition of Calendar Girls on 7 November at the Leeds Grand Theatre and share my thoughts for Leeds Living.
Set in the small Yorkshire village of Cracoe, Calendar Girls the Musical brings to the stage the real-life story of 11 women from the local Women’s Institute, who made themselves known 25 years ago when they posed for a Pirelli-style nude calendar to raise money for charity – and sold a staggering 400,000 copies.
Born out of the collaboration of Gary Barlow and Tim Firth, the musical returns to the stage with a revised script and new music.
I made my way to the theatre ahead of time and joined other attendees at the Wilson Barrett Bar. As any self-respecting introvert who finds themselves in a new place surrounded by strangers would do, I found a seat and proceeded to peruse the brochure I was handed with feigned focus.
As I riffled through the pages, I came across a familiar face from ITV’s BAFTA-winning Broadchurch – Tanya Franks playing the role of Annie. My flashbacks of Broadchurch were abruptly interrupted by the announcement that Liz Carney would be replacing Marti Webb in the role of Celia, much to the dismay of others who were looking forward to seeing Webb in the role. As we made our way to our seats, one of the other attendees spotted the original calendar girls in the crowd, pre-empting the big reveal of the night.
The small cast of nine did justice to the story and delivered solid vocal performances, taking the audience on an emotional roller-coaster. You could hear a pin drop in the theatre during emotional moments, punctured by well-placed comic relief-provoking bouts of laughter. Tanya Franks delivered a moving and persuasive performance as Annie in her struggle to move on, adjust and re-discover her identity after the loss of her husband. Her chemistry with her on-stage best fried, Amy Roberts, who was hilarious and daring as Chris, aided the script in shining a light on the strong bond between the two women.
While the connection between the other women was less prominent, the cast managed to convey the sense of women coming together for a cause close to their hearts, rising above micro conflicts, personality clashes, personal struggles and fear. Everyone had a moment to shine and did a great job developing their individual characters in self-reflective solos, addressing the private demons and moral dilemmas each woman faced.
Lyn Paul’s (Jessie) performance of ‘What Age Expects’ was particularly strong, touching upon ageism and defying societal expectations of middle-aged women, whereas Liz Carney’s light-hearted delivery of ‘So I’ve had A Little Work Done’ made me laugh and left no doubt in my mind she was a perfect fit for the role of Celia. Maureen Nolan’s (Ruth) unexpected drunken entrance on the nude photoshoot triggered some of the biggest laughs. The scene itself was tastefully done and brilliantly executed.
Overall, the revamped musical offers a fresh take on the extraordinary story of a group of seemingly ordinary Yorkshire women. The script carefully treads the fine line between emotional and comedic moments without tumbling down the slippery slope of caricature. With the timeless themes of love, friendship and loss at its heart, the famous story retains its relevance and did not fail to strike a chord with the audience. The crowd-pleasing performance ended with a standing ovation, followed by a short speech by Amy Roberts, revealing that the real calendar girls, who have now raised more than £6 million for Blood Cancer UK, were in the audience. The night ended on a high note as everyone turned towards the balcony and paid homage to the original girls.
Calendar Girls is at the Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday, 11 November. It runs at approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes including the interval. Book tickets online at leedsheritagetheatres.com or call the Box Office on 0113 243 0808
This tour is proud to be supporting Blood Cancer UK, the charity dedicated to funding research into all blood cancers including leukaemia, lymphoma, and myeloma, as well as offering information and support to blood cancer patients.
Photography by Alex Harvey-Brown.