The recipe for a successful musical requires emotion and humour, ingredients that Calendar Girls has in abundance. Led by an all-star cast including Fern Britton, Sara Crowe, and Denise Welch, this polished production celebrates the true story of Knapeley’s Women’s Institute (WI), amusingly depicting Yorkshire life without compromising the poignancy of the story’s tragedy.
Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s musical tells the true story of the women of Knapeley, who bare all to raise money for charity, and the spirits of one of their own. Annie, a member of the village’s WI, is left at a loss by the death of her husband, John, due to leukaemia. Her best friend Chris, a reluctant member of the Institute, suggests that they raise money for a new settee at Skipton Hospital in John’s name, utilising the tradition of the WI calendar to raise money with a twist: nudity. Hilarity and empowerment ensue for the women of Knapeley and the calendar proves to be a huge success.
The audience is immediately transported to the vibrant village of Knapely through the colourful characters of the WI and the set, punctuated by rolling hills and an ever-changing sky. Robert Jones deftly utilises the stage to show the dichotomy of public and private with subtle touches such as a distantly lit house and lowered light shades. The story is grounded by the changing of the seasons, encapsulating the energy of village life through tinsel, tulips and even a maypole, emphasising how life goes on and people endure.
Jones’ staging maintains the focus on the characters, enriching the story and making the performances all the more moving. Anna-Jane Casey’s depiction of Annie, the protagonist, is particularly moving, with the solos ‘Scarborough’ and ‘Kilimanjaro’ enabling emotional and intimate moments. Looking out at the audience, Casey pulls us in, positioning us as her confidante wand allowing us to see the depth of her pain and loss.
Casey’s sensitive portrayal of Annie provides a strong counterpoint to the comedic performances of the other WI women, most notably Karen Dunbar’s Cora and Denise Welch’s Celia. While Dunbar’s lilting Scottish accent allows her to revel in the jazzy riffs of ‘Who wants a silent night?’, Welch skilfully employs her comedic timing to deliver Celia’s frequent one-liners, culminating in the witty ‘I’ve had a little work done’. The female-dominated cast all delivers strong performances that enrich the story, leading to an empowering and triumphant climax.
Calendar Girls at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre is a thoroughly entertaining and polished production, honed almost to perfection by its previous run at the Leeds Grand Theatre. Powerful performances from the cast are complemented by the subtle yet atmospheric staging, compellingly recreating what Firth describes as“the beauty and the comedy” of the original story. A heartwarming blend of beauty and humour.
Calendar Girls the Musical
2nd -13th October
Image: Calendar Girls Press