Calendar Girls The Musical at Leeds Grand Theatre

Based on the true story of a Yorkshire Women’s Institute chapter who raised money for a leukaemia charity by producing a nude calendar.

Calendar Girls The Musical has been re-vamped, re-cast and re-set for its upcoming 9-month run, but loses none of the joy or inspiration of this very real, very human story.

A cast of daytime TV royalty and stage mainstays will bring the crowds flocking to see this show far beyond its rural Yorkshire birthplace. Fern Britton swaps the This Morning couch for the stiff wooden chairs of the W.I., as the supercilious Cheshire émigré and chair of the Knapely chapter. Denise Welch stars as Celia, who, in a glorious number, takes ownership over the fact she’s ‘had a little work done’, allowing her to lead the way in the field of bodily self-confidence. And it may have been some years since Ruth Madoc played Yellowcoat Gladys Pugh on Hi-de-Hi!, but she’s lost none of her show-stopping effervescence.  Playing the older lady and retired schoolteacher Jessie, she stirred a key plank of the demographic inside the Grand Theatre with her passionate denunciation of “what age expects”.

The fundraising efforts of the calendar itself may have been sparked by a man, but this is a show about women. Some might argue that at 25, I’m not the show’s key demographic, and until I saw this performance, I might have agreed, but it was truly an experience for women of all ages – a coming of age tale that disregards age, both for the younger characters asking their parents to ‘Protect Me Less’ and for the Calendar Girls themselves.

This show is about taking ownership of your future and accepting who you are, ‘flaws’, age, reputation, grief and cancer be damned. When it came to the big reveal during the calendar ‘shoot’, it was utterly brilliant to see women on stage claiming their bodies and their nudity in such an empowering way, supported by the rest of the cast and every single member of the audience, creating an atmosphere of pure joy – I couldn’t stop myself grinning and cheering along, despite my general awkwardness when it comes to audience participation.

The only slightly bum note for me was My Russian Friend – a love song to vodka sung by Ruth (Sara Crowe), not because it wasn’t executed spectacularly – it was – but because I think was supposed to be comedic, judging by the laughs from other audience members, yet for me it seemed like uncharacteristically bullish treatment of the relationship issues and alcohol problems the character was going through. For a show that doesn’t shy away from sensitive subjects, yet treating them honestly but with care, it seemed out of tone.

That said, the first thing I did the next day was to recommend the show to my most seriously musical-loving friend, and then pretty much anyone else who would listen. I’m not always into musicals; they tend to be a bit one way or the other for me – the Marmite of theatre – and though not every song will be making its way on to my shower-singing playlist, this is a truly special production and I would urge anyone who has the chance to go.

I may not be from Yorkshire, but this proudly Yorkshire musical had even me feeling a little bit patriotic for ‘God’s Own County’, or as the WI would no doubt put it, this green and pleasant land.

Calendar Girls The Musical runs at Leeds Grand Theatre until 1 September.  Tickets are available online.

Photography by John Swannell and Matt Crockett.

Editor’s Note:  This special performance was a dress rehearsal.  Carers of people with cancer as well as some patients and family members, together with some supporters of the Theatre, were invited.  In this 70th year of the NHS, this was perfect timing; particularly apt and well deserved.  It was recognition by the production company and Leeds Grand Theatre which was both sensitive and generous.  The Leeds Living team just wants to say Thank you.


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