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Calendar Girls: The Musical

Calendar Girls: The Musical

Image: Tim Firth and Gary Barlow with the original West End cast of The Girls in 2017.

L-R: Claire Machin, Tim Firth, Sophie-Louise Dann, Claire Moore, Joanna Riding, Debbie Chazen, Gary Barlow and Michele Dotrice.

Photo: Paul Johnson


Back in January 2017 we attended the official launch of Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s brand-new musical adaptation of Firth’s Calendar Girls.

The mere presence of Take That’s singer/songwriter prompted the world and his wife to descend on the hall in Kensington, London; BBC, SKY, all the nationals… you get my point.

The musical version of the Yorkshire true story was just called The Girls three years ago and came around five years after amateur theatre companies broke Samuel French’s licensing records when the play version was released for amateur performance for a strict eighteen-month window.

During that period French’s (now part of Concord Theatricals) issued approximately five or six hundred licenses and, in addition to a portion of royalties going straight to the Bloodwise charity, most societies also ran their own creative fundraising initiatives.

The Girls opened on 21 February 2017 at the Phoenix Theatre in London’s West End. The following two years saw the show tour the UK & Ireland, ending its time on the road at Chichester Festival Theatre in November 2019. This January, Sardines posted two videos to our YouTube channel suggesting it was time to release the musical for amateur release too. In response to the first video we received an email from Mark Bamforth in Yorkshire after he saw our appeal.

Mark belongs to the Grassington Players – an amateur society with close connections to the original Calendar Girls and their true story. Not only was Mark’s mother, Beryl Bamforth, the original Miss January, she was also a member of the GPs – as was John, whose diagnosis for leukemia and tragic death prompted the calendar idea in the first place. He even played John in the amateur premiere in 2012. In his email Mark explained how the Grassington Players are hoping to also perform the amateur premiere of the musical this year.

In such an instance, Mark – whose partner Jane played Annie in the premiere – would be taking on the role of Rod, Chris’s florist husband (Chris comes up with the idea of producing a calendar to help raise funds to buy a sofa for the hospital).

Concord Theatricals also watched our video on YouTube and also sent us an email the following day. Cathy Thomas, Senior Director of Marketing & Communications (Europe) told us that: “The title has not yet been released for amateur performance, however customers can register their details via that page to be notified about the show as soon as it’s made available.” Cathy continued, “It has always been the intention that The Grassington Players will be among the first UK amateur groups to perform to show, in order to celebrate their original connection to the story.”

Meanwhile, the Grassington Players subsequently uploaded the poster shown opposite to various social media platforms. Presumably the group has been negotiating with Concord for some time to perform the amateur premiere. However, due to the pandemic, dates have been forced back.

Sardines will be emailing Concord Theatricals a list of all of the positive comments, likes and shares from supporters of the amateur rights release but, to reiterate, societies now need to apply online via Concord’s website in order to register their interest. Visit: www.concordtheatricals.co.uk and search for ‘Calendar Girls the Musical’.

GRASSINGTON PLAYERS – NEWS UPDATE HERE!

YOUR NEWSPending Premiere Revealed

YOUR NEWS
Pending Premiere Revealed

STOP PRESS! LATE UPDATE! STOP PRESS!

Above: Part of Grassington Players’ cast of Calendar Girls: The Musical in 2020 before COVID-19 forced the amateur premiere to delay until 2021.
Photo: Heidi Marfitt


by Jane Ellison-Bates

Just as we were putting this issue to bed we received the following update directly from Grassington Players in relation to their 2021 amateur premiere production of Calendar Girls: The Musical….

Fresh from the professional circuit, Calendar Girls: The Musical is returning to its roots, as performing rights company Concord Theatricals has confirmed that Yorkshire Dales amateur society, Grassington Players, have been granted the first license to perform Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s uplifting musical at The Devonshire Institute in Grassington.

Based on the true story of the now world-famous Women’s Institute ladies from neighbouring Rylstone, the musical has evolved from the film and stage play with new characters including the teenage children of the girls.

Take That star, Gary Barlow, is an old school friend of playwright Tim Firth, and so was a natural choice of partner for adding music to his Calendar Girls dramatisation. The musical was born and nurtured in the Dale as Barlow and Firth brought their new cast to Burnsall village hall to perform a pilot version to an invited audience in March 2015, after which the guests – including the ‘real’ Calendar Girls and some members of Grassington Players – were asked to provide feedback on their favourite songs to help shape the final show.

The result is a range of contrasting songs with a good dose of Yorkshire grit and wit, so that comedy counterbalances the tears in this true tale of the heartbreak of cancer and the triumph of female spirit.

The real Miss January, octogenarian Beryl Bamforth, is a long-standing member of Grassington Players. She was sixty-five when she and her WI friends first disrobed for the original charity nude calendar. More than twenty years on, their fundraising total for Bloodwise has reached an incredible £6 million.

Bob Hamilton of Concord Theatricals said “It is fitting that Grassington Players should be awarded the rights to the first amateur performance of Calendar Girls: The Musical, particularly after their moving interpretation of the play in 2012. We’re looking forward to attending their gala performance with some of the cast reprising their roles from that production.”

Originally scheduled for production in May 2020, Calendar Girls: The Musical rehearsals were well underway in Grassington before COVID-19 struck, but the secret of the premier remained under wraps until recently. The resumption of rehearsals, with a new director, MD and a few other cast changes, is still pending, as the society – along with all other professionals and amateurs – awaits a time when restrictions are lifted and cast and crew deem it safe to rehearse and stage the show.

The anticipated date for the premier to be staged at Grassington Devonshire Institute is 25 September – 2 October 2021.

With a proportion of profits going to Bloodwise, tickets are £15 or £20 for the opening Gala Night and will be available online from:
grassingtonplayers.com/tickets

Please call 01756 752222 or email countmeintocalendargirls@gmail.com to be added to the waiting list to be notified when they are on sale.

The Girls Are Back in Town

The Girls Are Back in Town

Above: Gary Barlow and Tim Firth, co-writers of new musical – The Girls

In the New Year Sardines was invited to attend an exclusive rehearsal of Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s new musical, The Girls, which happens to be previewing at London’s Phoenix Theatre right now.

With both writers in attendance, producer David Pugh, the West End cast, as well as the ‘real’ W.I. calendar girls, Paul Johnson got the lowdown on the new show and how the story about a group of Yorkshire women has come to be so intrinsically linked to amateur theatre.

In 1999 eleven members of Rylstone & District Women’s Institute in Yorkshire had the idea of posing nude for a 2000 calendar in order to raise some extra funds for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, following the death of W.I. member Angela Baker’s husband, John, from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma the previous year.

The story of this ‘alternative’ W.I. calendar soon became national, international and then world news, resulting in sales of over 200,000 which, in turn, led to a multi-award-winning film in 2003 called Calendar Girls with a screenplay by Tim Firth. Featuring a star-studded British cast including Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton and Geraldine James, the film grossed almost $100m worldwide. But of course the story doesn’t end there…

The next incarnation of this unlikely tale came about when the Calendar Girls stage play, also adapted by Tim Firth, opened in the West End in 2009 on the back of a preview at Chichester and national tour. Following its London run, the play once more toured theatres around the UK for the next three years. During its professional life the play has featured a conveyor-belt of famous faces all willing to strip for the stage, including Lynda Bellingham, Patricia Hodge, Anita Dobson, June Brown, Jerry Hall, Jill Halfpenny, Arabella Weir, Janie Dee, Kelly Brook, Julie Goodyear, Letitia Dean, Gwen Taylor, Jennifer Ellison, Ruth Madoc, Lisa Riley, Gemma Craven, Sue Holderness, Charlie Dimmock, Lesley Joseph, Michelle Collins, Kacey Ainsworth… and far too many more to mention.

Then, in 2012, something very special happened. An initiative was launched where amateur societies could apply for licenses to perform Calendar Girls for a strictly limited 12-month window. However, this was quickly revised and expanded to 18 months after Samuel French’s licensing records were immediately smashed when the performing rights holders received over 500 applications even before the 1st September start date had arrived. Over the next 18 months almost 700 amateur productions were staged, with a share of each respective licensing fee going to Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (now called Bloodwise). Societies up and down the country took the play to their hearts with the majority organising extra charity ‘bucket’ collections during their respective runs.

Producer, David Pugh, who was behind 2012’s performing rights release, is a big amateur theatre fan: “It goes back to when I was nine and was a member of Endon Dramatic Society in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire,” he enthuses. “We did When We Are Married and I was on props, and we won the Noda award I think it was. So for me I’ve always supported amateur dramatics, and their support is enormous. This story, this musical, lends itself to everything those societies stand for. Also, how many times do your readers say to themselves, ‘I wish there were more parts for ladies.’ Well there are now, but there’s also parts for husbands and sons and daughters as well, so we hope we’re giving it to you all. When the play was released to amateur societies over that 18-month period we were entered into the Guinness Book of Records, and I hope that all the groups who are coming to see the new musical from all over the country are going to love it.”

Tim Firth, writer of the screenplay, stage adaptation and now co-writer of the new musical, The Girls, also has nothing but admiration for what amateur societies achieved during that magical 18-month period. I ask him for his thoughts on amateur theatre’s relationship with Calendar Girls. “First of all – one of thanks,” responds the playwright. “Massive thanks. I’m personally very indebted to the amateurs. When the 18-month window closed to amateur performances various members of the groups met and I went and sat in that room. There were hundreds of actors who had played the same part all talking to each another, and you realised that the play is a metaphor for something stronger. Just the way the actors need to look after each other on stage and bond, not only because unusually there are seven women driving the show who spend a huge amount of time together, but when they come to do the nudity scenes, they will only work if everyone is working for everybody else as a team.”

This brings us nicely to this latest ‘musical’ chapter of the story… The Girls, which is previewing now, officially opens at London’s Phoenix Theatre on 21st February and comes at the end of a long and carefully planned road. Co-writers Gary Barlow and Tim Firth grew up in the same village in the north of England and have been friends for over 25 years, before BBC1’s new Saturday night star was setting out on the path to world domination with Take That. The idea for a musical came to Tim Firth while he was at that amateur theatre ‘after-show’ party: “Somewhere in that I kind of thought, ‘There’s something I still want to revisit in this,’ because if you could make this work as a musical it would give you time to spend with the characters one-to-one; the songs will allow it.”

Gary Barlow agrees. “I could hear the music straight away and I thought it should be a massive part of this story. I think the music takes the whole thing to another level.” Tim goes on to explain how the plot of the new musical is also very different to the play so familiar with amateurs everywhere. “The idea of injecting music into the story suddenly changed everything, so people who know the play will appreciate the fact that the photo shoot that used to end act one is now right at the end of the show, and it gave us all the space to spend more time on the stories of husbands and the kids, and paint a village green musical for a worldwide audience.”

Tim and Gary penned scores of songs to enable them to select a dozen or so for the finished production. “We started off literally writing songs for two years before we ever set foot in the direction of the story,” explains Tim. “There’s a part of our laptop now which has got 76 songs at the last count of which the show only uses 12 or 13.” Gary adds, “It’s funny, it never felt like we were working, which is I guess how it should be.” David Pugh also gives an insight into how the show was developed way before it ever got near the West End: “We’ve been work-shopping this show for five years now since Gary and Tim started writing it. Then, two years ago we went up to Burnsall Village Hall [North Yorkshire] and we sold out – all 75 seats! We went there because we wanted an audience to hear it, and what can be better than to take it to Yorkshire where the folk certainly tell you what they think. Our original calendar girls were all there and their husbands, who all told us what they thought… and since then it’s actually change quite a bit. We took on board a lot of what was said to us. Then we went to do a tryout in Leeds and the Lowry and even since then – thanks to digital technology – we know that 26% has changed. And we will continue to try and improve it, to listen to our audiences. It’s only by listening that we can achieve what we set out to do.”

Gary and Tim talk to me more about why they were determined to try their show out in a village hall. And would you believe, the pair have had amateur theatre at the back of their minds since day one. What’s more we can reveal that it’s definitely coming our way! We’ll let them open in the West End first, but prepare for another licensing frenzy somewhere down the line… “The truth is… What we can confidently say is that… you WILL absolutely be able to do it,” announces Tim, who is also directing the show. “We started this whole process in an amateur dramatic hall with just a piano because we needed to know that the story would work in the simplest format. If it works in that most rudimentary form, knowing that some amateur groups can only produce musicals on a small scale, then it would still work. So we did it in this village hall where John Baker used to do amateur dramatics himself – it’s perfect. And we found that it stood up didn’t it?” Gary immediately confirms, “Yeah, I think from the day we started looking at this together as a musical, the keyword was simplicity, especially musically because it’s a very humble, gorgeous village story. The idea of putting a big bombastic, sweeping musical together just seemed wrong and so we always said if we can do this whole show with just an acoustic guitarist or just a pianist then that’s how it should live. I know okay, we’re going to have twelve in our [West End] pit, but we could actually just have one and it would still translate perfectly.” Tim comes straight back, “When we did it in the village hall we had a piano, a double bass and the little drum kit; it was the simplest format. We didn’t write any parts apart from the piano, so they found their own notes and that was it. A big beacon for us was Blood Brothers, which you could do with a guitar – that’s what it was written on. You don’t need anything else and, my God, if the story’s strong enough, the characters are strong enough, the comedy and the heart of it, then that’s all you need.”

Heading up the cast of The Girls, in the roles of Annie and Chris are two of the country’s most talented theatre stars, Joanna Riding (who won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical twice for her roles as Julie in Carousel at the NT and as Eliza Doolitle in My Fair Lady) and Claire Moore (who originated the role of Ellen in Miss Saigon and also Christine in The Phantom of the Opera, Fantine and Madame Thenardier in Les Miserables and the NT’s award-winning London Road). Other familiar names making up the rest of the girls include Michele Dotrice (Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, The Ladykillers, Nell Gwynn), Debbie Chazen (Topsy-Turvy, Smoking Room, Psychoville), Sophie-Louise Dann (Bend It Like Beckham, Made in Dagenham, Lend me a Tenor), and Claire Machin (My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, Betty Blue Eyes).

The cast are quick to heap praise on the West End’s newest writing partnership. “It’s the way Tim writes,” Joanna Riding tells me. “While I love the songs from My Fair Lady, there’s a sort of alchemy that happened between Gary and Tim. And Tim’s lyrics are so honest. Often when you’re singing a song with great sadness or great joy it’s full of platitudes and sweeping statements… ‘My heart breaks…’ and, ‘How can I go on…’ Here, he talks honestly about the little things, really truthful honest things that ordinary people would say. And being a northern lass, Tim writes in a way how people really do respond. Cups of tea. It’s the little things. He’s an extraordinary writer in that way. There’s a song I sing called Kilimanjaro when John is gone, and Chris, for the first time ever has let me down. It’s time for Annie, who has always been in Annie’s shadow, to step up for John. And the lyrics; I have never enjoyed singing a song so much because every single word means so much. I never get tired of singing it, never, because every time it rings so true, it’s such a brutally honest song, so beautifully written – and the tune. Everything has come together to be the most beautiful song I think I’ve ever been able to sing in my life, what a privilege.

“Gary’s music is gorgeous as well,” Joanna continues. “People have a signature don’t they, like when you listen to a John Williams piece, there is something about it that you recognise instantly. Every so often I hear a little bit of Take That which is great because it’s modern and contemporary, and with that coming through it’s what these ladies have listened to for the last twenty years. I think the fact that he and Tim go back such a long way, and that they’re mates, and on the same page, and both Northern lads, and that Gary writes lyrics as well as music and Tim is very musical on top of being a writer, all makes it work so well. It wasn’t a case of there are some lyrics, put some music to that. They’d get an idea, throw it one way, then Gary would mess with it and throw it back and so on.”

Claire Moore also doesn’t take much arm-twisting to chat about pop music’s golden boy and his chum: “Tim never allows it to get sentimental; every time there’s a moment for tears he’ll put a laugh in which undercuts it, it’s just glorious writing. He is such a collaborator and even now you can go to him with a fresh idea; he’s so open. Gary might not be from a theatre background but his songs are quite theatrical. Gary’s songs tell a story, they have a real narrative and I think that’s perfect. I think it’s lovely that you’ve a bunch of older women basically going home singing Gary Barlow songs, but that’s what we do! We are really doing it and people are going to be coming to see us, I can’t wait!” Neither can Michelle Dotrice who adds, “Gary’s music is so rooted in Yorkshire, so rooted, and it’s not remotely ‘poppy’ in any way. With Tim’s beautiful words which are so real and so conversational… I just think it’s so damn clever; he’s so good at capturing real people and bringing that through in his lyrics. He so ‘matter of fact’ and not actorish or poncy in any way. It’s just so incredibly written; you get the pathos, you get the heartbreak, but you have the wonderful solidarity of these women.” Michelle then manages to sum up the magic in a single sentence, “You needed a friendship like Gary and Tim’s to put this musical together; you couldn’t have done it in a purely commercial way. It’s a very special relationship, that one.”

With such a distinguished and experienced cast at my disposal I can’t resist asking them how they feel about the hundreds of amateur societies planning trips to the West End as we speak – to watch the very roles many of them will already have played and will now have an eye on reprising. “How terrifying! Thanks a bunch,” is the hilarious response from the woman once married to Frank Spencer. “We are scuppered aren’t we; I could have done without this information. But isn’t that interesting, it’s a total merry-go-round isn’t it. They’re all going to be waiting to perform the show themselves, but that’s wonderful really. It’s bad enough for me not being a singer – that’s probably my biggest fear. Probably more than the stripping, I mean with this body it doesn’t matter, ha ha! I feel sorry for the audience. It’s definitely the singing I’m worried about – terrified.”

Meanwhile, Claire Moore appears to be more excited than nervous. “They’re all so going to want to do this show,” she beams. “It’s quite an honour to provide the template for the role which so many people are going to have their eye on performing in the future. I really hope the groups of people who come down love it. We had quite a few who came along to see us when we were at Leeds and then Manchester. I wonder how long it will be before amateurs get the chance to do the musical. Probably not for a while, we haven’t even opened in the West End yet …unless we close, God forbid, you never know in this business.”

Joanna Riding has a slightly more philosophic view while recognising the huge relevance to amateur theatre: “Of course the play’s been very popular hasn’t it with amateur societies. And I bet there are loads of copycat calendars floating around out there! It’s going to be amazing having so many groups who have already performed the play coming down to see us. They’ve been up there, done it themselves and they know how it feels. It’s funny, I hadn’t actually thought of it like that because what Tim and Gary have written is so far removed from the play – and I think that’s why they called it The Girls – they really wanted a fresh retelling of it. Our characters, apart from Chris and Annie, and one or two of the others, have been redrawn slightly. So in a way they’ll be coming to see something really fresh. If you ask me this in five years’ time when we’ve all done the show, we’ve all been at it, then it’ll be a different story; we’d have all played those songs and made them our own. I guess that being the first to play the part and sing the songs means, I guess, I’m quite free of feeling that responsibility but, having said that, the responsibility to the real girls is massive.”

Those of you who read our previous issue will be only too aware that just seven days after The Girls officially opens, less than a mile away at The Vaudeville Theatre, Amanda Holden and friends will be opening in Stepping Out – bizarrely also set in a village hall and featuring a group of everyday women. When I spoke with her, Amanda Holden even referred to Stepping Out as “Calendar Girls in Tap Shoes!” I wonder if our sunflower-wearing gang up the road are as aware. Joanna Riding plays it very innocently, “It hadn’t occurred to me, but yes, how extraordinary! The audience are going to be spoilt for choice aren’t they? Once I get into rehearsals I’m very blinkered so I haven’t really been aware, but that’s quite hilarious actually; you’ve got Amanda’s star power versus Gary’s star power, the battle of the reality judges!”

While Claire Moore is aware of the coincidence she can only see the positives: “Isn’t it great! It’s like London buses just with ladies of a certain age, all shapes and sizes. But it’s fantastic, and there’s room for both because they’re two very different shows; of course if they were opening with Calendar Girls then it would be different. But it’s fantastic, and these wonderful roles for women, older women as well. Alleluia!”

The last word, however, can really only go to Tim Firth and Gary Barlow, who probably also get to ‘drop the mic’.
Tim: “In truth it’s probably to do with the fact that there are so few musicals or plays where women completely drive the show. We were going to do a tap dancing nude finale but we just couldn’t fit it in…”
Gary: “…and I’m the only one who knows how to tap dance! We didn’t have the time, I can’t teach everyone…”
Tim: “Yep, then the council moved in as well and wouldn’t allow it…”
Gary: “…Ha ha ha!”

For dates, tickets and more info visit: www.thegirlsmusical.com

…A Few Final Thoughts…

“I can tell you that the original ladies continue to raise money for Bloodwise, and with our cast and their buckets, in the five weeks when we tried it out in Leeds and at the Lowry they raised £75,000 which is an incredible achievement. That will continue as the musical gives to Bloodwise a share of the profits through weekly royalties as well as the bucket collections, which is very exciting as the ladies are very very nearly up to £5m. So I would like to thank them for letting us tell their story.”
David Pugh (Producer – Calendar Girls & The Girls)

“I think the thing to get right, the really important thing, is the relationship between Annie and Chris, to have what Trish and Angela have. Claire and I go back a long way and we are really good mates and that seems to come across. We are both Northern lasses, and we met quite early on in our careers and we adore each other. That doesn’t always carry on stage but in the previous
incarnation where we did the show in Manchester and Leeds, it seemed that that was working. That was really important to us; that’s the core of it. That friendship is the core of the piece.”
Joanna Riding (Annie)

“We’ve been really lucky on every level. But I think the most important thing about it, the most wonderful thing, is that we are doing a bit of good in the name of some amazing people. John Baker’s memory is alive and well, and for his family, that is an amazing thing. We never knew him but we feel as if we did, and to contribute to something that they did is a really great feeling.”
Claire Moore (Chris)

“When I was asked to do it I must confess thinking, ‘Do we need another Calendar Girls when we’ve already had the film and the play? Do we really need a musical?’ Yes, we do! It has such an element to it now that they’ve broadened it out to the husbands and the children. You get the real scope of this village, this community. So you understand these women’s back stories; some of them can’t do what they’ve been asked to do because of how their home life is, or whatever. You get to understand. It’s not just the six women, there’s a back story to them all which is wonderful.”
Michele Dotrice (Jessie)

George Sampson In the House

George Sampson In the House

Above: George Sampson and Deena Payne (left centre) lead the cast of the new touring production of the Madness musical, Our House

It’s not the best-kept secret in the world that Madness musical, Our House, will always have a special place in our hearts here at Sardines. Now 51, I was at ‘that’ age in the late-70s/early-80s when the whole 2-Tone movement swept the country with a particular nutty ska sound emanating from Camden Town in north London.

Nearly forty years on and the timeless music of Madness is affecting a whole new generation, which is largely down to Tim Firth’s ingenious musical.

This autumn, some fifteen years after the show first opened in the West End at The Cambridge Theatre (before Matilda was even a twinkle in the RSC’s eye) a new production of Our House will tour the country beginning at Crewe on 10th August. Amateur societies have of course been performing the show in their droves for several years now, so if you’ve already produced it, or if it’s on your to-do list, why not see how the professionals handle it?

To impress his girlfriend, on his 16th birthday Joe Casey breaks into a new high-rise development to show Sarah the impressive view. However, when the Police turn up Joe is faced with a life-changing dilemma and his world splits in two. Simultaniously, we follow ‘good’ Joe, who gave himself up, as well as ‘bad’ Joe, who ran off like a criminal without a second thought for the consequences.

With Tim Firth’s clever Sliding Doors-style double timeline, together with the irresistible sound of Madness, the new tour promises great things, not least because it stars BGT winner, George Sampson, who will be busting his moves as bad boy, Reecey. Who can forget when, in 2008, the 14-year-old’s iconic Singin’ In The Rain mash-up won the show’s second series and, in doing so, brought Street Dance to the mass market for the very first time?

I caught up with George and the new Our House team on only their second day in the rehearsal room – where the unique Madness buzz filled the air (groups that have performed Our House will know exactly what I mean).

“We’re only on Day 2 but it already feels like I’ve known everyone for years,” an older 24-year-old George Sampson tells me. “It’s down to the feel-good factor of the music and the Madness lyrics. So, it’s been easy for me to settle in, in fact this is probably the perfect musical for me to jump in and instantly feel confident with as quickly as I have.” George looks a lot older and meaner than the young teenager who won the public’s hearts nearly a decade ago, which is just as well as he prepares to play Reecey, a very nasty piece of work. “It’s a weird one, I don’t know what people see in me but I’m always getting typecast as the bad boy; the mean school bully… ‘George’ll do!’ It just seems to keep happening. But I’ll take it, and in this show Reecey fits that perfectly.” George’s references to typecasting come on the back of a couple of high-profile roles in Waterloo Road (2011) and Emmerdale (2016).

His recently shaved head also goes a long way to supporting the new image but, when I ask him about it, George explains how it’s all part of a well-timed coincidence. “I had a hair transplant just eight days ago which meant that I had to shave my head for the procedure,” he discloses. It turns out that all the head-spinning synonymous with George’s street dance style has taken its toll on the dancer’s scalp. “Ha, ha! We’ve linked them together so well! It needs to stay really short for the duration of the run. The director wanted a shaved head for Reecey – so I said OK, and it’s worked out fine.”

As Reecey, George gets to sing one of the musical’s big dance numbers, Baggy Trousers, so I have to ask how he relates to performing one of Madness’ most iconic songs (which hit the charts thirteen years before he was even born). “I think I was born way after my time when it comes to music,” he says. “Believe it or not I don’t really listen to much modern music as such, and Madness is well within one of my preferred eras. I know that some of the cast who are also young have had to learn the songs for the first time but there are no issues like that on my part. I love a bit of Madness.” And anyone can sing a bit of Madness, right? “In this show they’re not trying to be the best singers. It’s all about the music and the songs, and it’s just a fact that you don’t need to be the best singer in the world to do Madness justice.” Hmmm… where’s Suggs when you need him!

Baggy Trousers is just one number among many in Our House that will hopefully showcase some of Mr Sampson’s famous moves. “Fabian, our choreographer has been really good and more or less accepted that I am what I am,” confirms George. “Obviously the musical is what it is and we have to interpret that and incorporate the way people would dance to ska music but, at the same time, they want a bit of flair, a bit of me, and a few tricks here and there. So it’s been really nice for me to learn about how to dance to the music style and then be able to incorporate my own stuff into the choreography.”

I manage to grab a quick word with Fabian Aloise, the choreographer who George mentions, to find out a little more about the unique style the show traditionally adopts. I also give him a friendly warning that some of his moves are almost certainly going to be copied by amateur societies after the tour. “Ha, ha! Don’t they say that theft is the highest form of flattery?” …is the welcomed reaction. “But I’m actually trying to be reverent to Peter Darling’s original choreography in the West End production and even the first UK tour. Essentially a lot of the steps that he took were what Madness themselves had come up with in their videos, so it’s very difficult to do a Madness musical and NOT incorporate those steps. It would be like doing We Will Rock You without the Radio Gaga arms! When I told Peter that I’d been asked to choreograph the show, he gave me his blessing and hoped it would bring us similar success. If you like… he stole it from Madness… and so on… otherwise we’re left trying to reinvent the wheel.”

Leaving George to eat his lunch for a moment I spot Deena Payne who readers will know as Emmerdale’s Viv Hope, a role she played for eighteen years. Originally a dancer herself, in Our House Deena plays Joe Casey’s, mum, Kath. Since leaving ITV’s Yorkshire Dales, she’s had stints in Calendar Girls and On Tidy Endings in the West End, however, to say Deena is excited on her return to musical theatre would be an understatement. “Rehearsals have just started so, because it’s new, it’s quite tiring and manic. But the energy’s fantastic, and the cast are lovely,” she beams. “I’m loving it because I used to go to Arts Ed, and I was a dancer, and it’s just like stepping into ‘pain’ again, ha, ha. I love it! For me the rehearsals are the best bit. It’s like chewing a toffee when you’re just getting everything out of it. It’s kind of organic, a really nice time, but it is tiring. We’re flat out, from 9.30am until 6pm.”

Deena has come into the production after the previously billed Linda Nolan was forced to withdraw after her recent diagnosis for breast cancer. “That’s the real downer in getting the part, and I’ve wished her well,” she emphasises. “Nobody wants to get a job because somebody else isn’t well. I felt a little awkward coming in, but I won’t let her down.”

When you’re in the bubble of TV soap for eighteen years it appears that the world around you changes somewhat. “The last actual musical I did must have been in 1988-89, and it’s very strange; it doesn’t seem to have changed that much but, at the same time, it has,” explains Deena. “These days, you don’t go to an audition, you go to a ‘meeting’, and the youngsters today are far more grown-up about it; they do their job very well, very professional. I just feel that back in my day people weren’t as professional as dancers. The dancing for this is very modern for my age, but I’m keeping up with what I have to do. There’s a lot of energy in the show!”

Going back to the Madness ‘buzz’ I mentioned earlier, I ask director, James Tobias, firstly if he’s even noticed it, and if so, whether it’s something he can put his finger on? “It’s the most unique thing to witness,” he says in recognition. “There’s so much love – and rightly so – for this show within the industry, that I think the cast are so thrilled just to be part of it. But there’s also something about it that means you can’t help but completely let go and let rip! It’s quite unique to this show. Even now during our lunch hour, they’re all sat together playing games. It’s the weirdest thing. We’ve also got a huge spectrum of people in the show, from brand-new graduates, people who have been in the West End, obviously George and Deena… and they all gelled instantly. There’s a chemistry and camaraderie that I don’t think I’ve ever seen so quickly and strongly on a production before.”

Presumably the idea is for James to transfer that special magic to the stage. “It’s a really high-energy show – in fact it lives and dies on the energy,” he states. “But even though the numbers are very high energy into terms of choreography, the scene work is actually quite human and naturalistic. It’s an amazing script with some really three-dimensional characters which is a gift for a lot of musicals. You don’t always get that. We’re right at the beginning of the rehearsal process and things will obviously develop and change and we move forward, but I’m enjoying just treating them like human beings and creating a real story.”

When you take Our House on, it’s a bit like joining a secret club that only a privileged few are aware of. James knows this only too well and speaks from within the confines of his new membership: “There’s a lot of misconception about the show from people who don’t know it. Some think it’s a Madness biopic which it isn’t at all, and Tim Firth has written an amazing story. It’s a mammoth show, which we’re just finding out as we start to create it. We’re trying to create something very unique and different with it and it’s a wonderful challenge.”

There’s obviously something in the Firth-Madness collaboration that Our House-savvy societies up and down the country will already be aware of. “What I think a lot of people don’t realise is that Madness are incredible storytellers,” offers James Tobias. “Every single song advances the story rather than music which has been crow-barred in for the sake of it. Each song absolutely relates to what’s happening in that moment.

“Madness don’t write soppy love songs, they write about real life, which is why we’re able to take a much more naturalistic approach and a real approach to the characters and their relationships – rather than a more glamorised musical theatre kind of thing. I really do think that audiences are going to be so amazingly and pleasantly surprised when they come to see the show. It’s fun, it’s funny, but it’s also really touching and moving. And normally when you have these larger-than-life musicals they just don’t always have the heart.”

Turning back to our latest cover boy, George Sampson, I can’t help but wind the clock back a bit (see what I did there?) and find out a bit more about his street-dancing path to stardom. “I have had dance training,” he advises. “I milled about for a couple of years, went to different dance classes and picked up different styles, so, although I can say I am trained, I’ve no specific training that counts for anything official. Then I moved on and once I was old enough to do my own thing, at thirteen I went out and took to the streets busking. That didn’t change me in terms of how I danced, it just gave me a streetwise edge and helped me learn how to play to crowds, who weren’t specifically dance crowds; on the street you get whoever is walking past. You have to learn your craft and how to engage an audience very, very quickly.”

The shaven-headed dancer continues: “I had to learn real quick, which I did in Manchester. It gave me a good understanding of what people were going to be like watching me. So I did that for eighteen months and then decided to take it up a notch and enter some competitions.” George did enter the first series of Britain’s Got Talent but was unsuccessful; however, he put that right the following year by winning first place in the live final. What’s more his groundbreaking achievement paved the way for similar acts to follow suit. “Winning it seemed to start a bit of a chain-reaction with Diversity and Flawless coming along after me. I don’t take any credit for their success, but it’s nice to know I was there at the start of it and might have played a part,” he modestly tells me.

Nowadays, it seems that every other act call themselves street dancers. “That’s the difference with being labelled ‘Street Dance’ and being able to dance on the street. You can learn Street Dance in a studio but, for me, a street dancer can take it out on the street and entertain anybody. I only figured that out because I went out on the street and did it. On the other hand you still have to be gifted to be able to pick up and dance certain styles, even if it is in a studio. So it can still come across well on those types of shows.”

Either way, George is adamant he knows exactly what it takes to do well in such scenarios: “For me those shows are about having a talent and being able to put that talent forward with your character, and to do that is actually really hard,” he says, finishing his lunch. “Diversity, who also won BGT, had enormous character within their group which people fell in love with, and they were able to bring that across. But they’d also done bits and bobs; they’ve been in ‘underground battles’ and ‘jams’ and put themselves out there – they weren’t a group formed in a studio.

Also, auditioning for BGT is almost like being on the street. The audience aren’t there to specifically watch a dance show; they’re there to see anything. Some probably don’t even want to see a dancer. So you’ve really got to be good at what you do and quickly get that across to the audience, and that comes from your character.”

Our House tours from 10 Aug – 25 Nov
More information, tickets & dates at: www.ourhousetouruk.com

The Review – Nah! Nah! Nah! Nah! Oi!

The Review – Nah! Nah! Nah! Nah! Oi!

Production: Our House
Credits: Book by Tim Firth. Music & lyrics by Madness
Genre: Musical
Production: Ariel Company Theatre (ACT)
Directed by: Neil Hopson
Venue: The Hawth Theatre, Crawley
Performance: 24 September 2019
Reviewed by: Paul Johnson

Ariel Company Theatre is currently performing [this production finished its run in September] one of the best non-professional productions of Our House (fondly known as the ‘Madness musical’) I have seen… and I’ve probably been to more performances of this show than any other!

My first visit to Crawley’s Hawth Theatre was, therefore, an extremely happy one, despite the absence of both heads of ACT, Nicci and Neil Hopson, who were rightly being kept busy backstage last night supporting and helping their cast and crew.

Our House, as with so many other shows, is reliant on both director and cast fully understanding the precise style required to successfully carry the show off. There are no such worries in Crawley this week as ACT’s Artistic Director, Neil Hopson, has taken the show by the scruff of the neck and shared that energy with the entire cast.

Complemented by the irresistible music of Madness, Tim Firth has written a clever coming-of-age, ‘Sliding Doors’ -style book. On his sixteenth birthday, Joe Casey attempts to impress his girlfriend, Sarah, by breaking into a building site to show her the views across Camden Town. When the police turn up Joe is faced with running away and leaving Sarah to fend for herself, or, being the bigger person and giving himself up. As Joe splits in two, we see the result of both outcomes; that of ‘bad’ Joe and ‘good’ Joe. Bad Joe (dressed in black) initially appears to do well by hooking up with the wrong sort of people, while good Joe (in white) is sent to a Young Offenders Institution. Oh dear… will it all turn out alright in the end?

The same actor must play both Joes which means the most costume changes in musical theatre history (the original West End show broke the Guinness World Record with no less than twenty-nine costume changes!). To this end young Jarrod Hopson – on the show’s opening night – wasn’t noticeably late for any of his entrances; a sure sign of commitment from all involved, including his off-stage dresser/s – an essential requirement. With Marisha Gray’s Sarah (slightly taller than her leading man and performing in flats), the two make a fine couple and boast a strong pair of vocals, made evident with the iconic It Must Be Love in act two. Gray’s rendition of the show’s newest (and one of the best) songs, NW5, is probably the finest I have heard from an amateur performer.

With a group of school-leavers at its heart, this is very much a young person’s show. As such, Tim Firth has written lots of relevant humour into the script, which means you need a fitting cast who not only understand the humour, but also possess the talent and skills to perform it. Joe’s two best friends, Emmo (Tom Clark) and Lewis (Richard Gill) are mirrored by Sarah’s, Billie (Chelsea Hennessey) and Angie (Megan Roberts), and have been perfectly cast. Filling these supporting roles is often overlooked at the show’s expense but, in this instance, all four give sublime performances. With plenty of confidence and great comic timing, all four are a joy to watch – and hilarious.

Our House isn’t about high-kicking 42nd Street -style chorus lines. It’s about capturing the rawness of a north London community and, fittingly, I love Bev Locke’s no-nonsense choreography. With nods to the original West End production, big numbers such as Baggy Trousers (led by a very well-prepared Ollie Hopson as evil bad-boy Reecey) and The Sun and the Rain provide moments of sheer joy.

Special mention must also go to Simon Fellingham as Joe’s ghostly dad. Not only does this actor command his role, but also adds to the show’s success with a great vocal, making a difficult score sound easy. In fact I am impressed how musically-rehearsed the entire cast are.

The only gripe I would voice would be with the professionally-hired set. With black and white doors continuously sliding into and out of view (depending on which version of Joe is onstage), for anyone who doesn’t know the story – which you should always presume is everybody – this probably causes a level of confusion. I understand this set does come with two further movable pieces, featuring more doors, but possibly proved too problematic to manage, but may have gone some way to making the good-versus-bad Joe a bit more obvious.

Much of Our House is an ensemble effort and the entire company deserves much credit for delivering their performances with heaps of energy and pace (aided by Andy Stewart’s very capable band). You can always tell how much fun the cast are having by the quality of the big One Step Beyond/Baggy Trousers finale (I’ve even seen the show done without a finale at all!). On opening night this was, hands down, the best finale I’ve seen.

Hopefully, Madness now have a whole new generation of fans!

(edited from: www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/reviews)

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