Friday, 19 April 2019

Fund-raising WI girls are well worth a date in anyone’s diary

Fund-raising WI girls are well worth a date in anyone’s diary

Calendar Girls the Musical | New Theatre Oxford | Tuesday, April 16

THE turning year is naturally the key theme in Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls the Musical.

This love letter to Yorkshire takes us into the heart of a rural community: its families, businesses and routines — and its Women’s Institute.

Contented lives are overturned when the amiable John (Phil Corbitt) falls ill.

His wife Annie (Anna-Jane Casey) and friends Chris (Rebecca Storm) and Rod (Ian Mercer) offer sterling support and it is John’s illness which ultimately leads to the production of the fund-raising calendar of the title.

This sunflower-bright production owes a huge amount to director Matt Ryan, designer Robert Jones and the creative team. The audience is transported to Yorkshire by a set design offering beautiful sweeping landscapes.

Then there’s the music. Writer Tim Firth and Take That star Gary Barlow joined forces to produce a musical version of Calendar Girls in order to distil key moments in a moving human story and key insights into a quirky collection of individuals.

The songs are great — and performed with energy and commitment by an excellent and versatile cast.

The biggest round of applause must go to the women. The friendship between reliable Annie and livewire Chris is brought across warmly by Casey and Storm. Denise Welch’s star quality comes through in her funny portrayal of vamp Celia. Pauline Daniels gives a sparky performance as retired teacher Jessie and understudy Nikki Gerrard was delightful as unconventional vicar’s daughter Cora. Sara Crowe is hilarious as the put-upon Ruth and Fern Britton commanding as the bossy WI chair, Marie.

You have to love the husbands too: Corbitt as John, Mercer as Rod, Sebastian Abineri as Colin and Alan Stocks as Denis.

A big shout-out, also, to the very believable young actors playing droll teenagers, Danny (Danny Howker), Tommo (Tyler Dobbs) and Jenny (Isabel Caswell).

The musical builds up to a great crescendo in the photography scene in which the WI ladies tentatively get their kit off to shoot the glamour calendar, the
fund-raising brainchild of Chris, in honour of John, who always talked of new horizons.

It takes nerve for ladies of a certain age to break out from being “Mrs Conventional” and we see the characters struggle with self-doubt and concerns about propriety.

It likewise takes sheer guts for female actors of a certain age to appear unclothed on stage.

Within the storyline, each woman’s moment in the spotlight is managed with great dignity by photographer Lawrence (Derek Elroy).

As a live stage spectacle, this scene is unmissable — uproarious, celebratory and empowering for women.

Calendar Girls the Musical has all the hallmarks of success, so it was no surprise that it earned a standing ovation on its opening night from a very appreciative audience.

Until Saturday.

Susan Creed

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