Balancing scenes wrought with emotion against those full of fun and mirth, Calendar Girls will have you howling with laughter even as you finish wiping tears from your eyes.
Set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire dales, Calendar Girls is based on the incredible true story of the Knapley Women’s Institute, or WI, and their fundraising efforts to buy a new sofa for the Skipton General Hospital relatives’ room. Annie (Sarah Jane Buckley) and best friend Chris (Rebecca Storm) rally fellow WI members to pose for an ‘alternative’ calendar in order to raise the money in honour of Annie’s late husband John – much to the dismay of their WI chairwoman (Judy Holt).
Familiar jokes from the well loved 2003 feature film land just as well as new one liners from the incredibly charismatic cast, earning big laughs from the audience throughout. There are soaring highs and heartfelt lows, particularly as Annie sings of John’s declining health in ‘Very Slightly Almost’, juxtaposing grief with the general chaos and hilarity of village life.
There’s sparkling chemistry between the five main WI women (Misses January, February, July, September and November). Sue Devaney is brilliant as the somewhat disgraced vicar’s daughter Cora in her raunchy festive solo (‘Who Wants a Silent Night?’), while Lisa Maxwell as ex-air hostess Celia is exuberant in her ode to her physique (‘So I’ve Had a Little Work Done’). Channelling more emotion with a song about resisting the expectations of growing older (‘What Age Expects’) is Lesley Joseph as Jessie, and Julia Hills as the downtrodden Ruth evokes both a laugh and a tear as sits alone on stage with a bottle of vodka (‘My Russian Friend and I’).
While the voices of the central cast were fantastic, the music itself left a little to be desired, feeling much more like tools to simply drive the plot than memorable tunes in their own right. From a man who’s penned as many hits as Gary Barlow, you might be forgiven for expecting songs that are a little more catchy. Although the emotional tone was well-plotted, after the final curtain I found myself lacking an earworm to be humming for the rest of the week.
Despite a lack of memorable melody, it’s impossible to deny the absolute joy of ‘For One Night Only’, the number that carries us through the iconic calendar shoot. As members of the cast drop their dressing gowns and reveal not-quite-but-almost all, there’s a real sense of fun injected into the scene and the laughs on stage feel as genuine as those in the audience.
As the cast take their final bow, glancing round at the applauding theatre it’s hard to spot anyone who’s not on their feet. I laughed out loud, cried off all my makeup, and fell in love with the Calendar Girls all over again.
Calendar Girls the Musical plays at Nottingham's Theatre Royal until Saturday 6 July 2019.