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Calendar Girls: The Musical

Calendar Girls: The Musical

All Photos: Anita Adams

Nestled in the beautiful and idyllic dales of North Yorkshire, Grassington Players have, at last, performed the amateur premiere of the final adaptation of one of the most extra-ordinary stories of modern times. That story is, of course of the ‘Calendar Girls’, and it tells how a group of women from Rylstone and District Women’s Institute made history when they posed (tastefully) naked in a W.I. ‘alternative’ calendar for the year 2000.

The original financial goal of £5,000 is, today, fast-approaching a whopping £6million and has been raised in memory of John Baker, an ex-member of Grassington Players who died from non-Hodgkin lymphoma (or blood cancer to you and I) back in 1998.

There aren’t many people around the world who haven’t heard of the Calendar Girls story. Tim Firth wrote the original screenplay for a 2003 film starring the likes of Helen Mirren and Julie Walters. Then Firth adapted his own script for the stage, which opened in the West End in 2009. Perfect for celebrities to star as the let’s-get-naked W.I. members, the play enjoyed several runs and tours until, in 2012, when Grassington Players performed the amateur premiere of the play.

Apparently, the original ‘Miss January’, Beryl Bamforth, was also a member of the amateur theatre group so it was extremely fitting that the amateur premiere should be produced so close to the story’s spiritual ‘home’. Over the following eighteen months – in the name of charity – the amateur floodgates opened with almost 700 record-breaking productions were staged around the country. Even Tim Firth’s own mother reportedly appeared in one such production.

But the story didn’t stop there. About six or seven years ago, teenage friends, Tim Firth and Take That singer Gary Barlow, collaborated to adapt the stage play once more – this time into a musical. With one eye on performing such a show in a typical village hall – backed by a tiny band if necessary – the pair tried out their new show out in Grassington’s neighbouring Burnsall Village Hall before opening again in the West End with a star-studded cast.

Once more Samuel French (now part of the mighty Concord Theatricals) has allowed Grassington Players to produced the amateur premiere, this time of the musical, but then of course Covid got in the way. It should have happened early last year but everything was closed. So, in the true amateur theatre spirit of ‘the show must go on’, here we are. A handful of original 2012 cast members are reprising their roles which even includes Beryl Bamforth’s son, Mark, who after playing John in 2012 returns, this time, as florist Rod Harper, husband of Chris, plus Jane Ellison-Bates who returns to the role of Annie (Angela in real life, or Julie Walters on the big screen).

But you all probably know this story inside-out don’t you?… so I’ll get on with reviewing this show.

As I watched the premiere last night, alongside a group of the real Calendar Girls (including Beryl), I was struck by the importance of the occasion. Here, performing this musical, is a non-musical company. And if they can do it, so can any of the original societies who performed the play ten years ago. Tim Firth has written plenty of brilliantly dramatic and funny dialogue which is unusual for a musical, but Firth is an exceptional writer. I loved Rod’s line – delivered by Mark Bamforth – which arguably got the biggest laugh of the night. Rod is talking to his wife, Chris, about their son and, as he remembers their younger days he says that he remembered her telling him “You can’t get pregnant after a curry!” Ridiculous and brilliant all at once.

As the six all-important calendar girls, Firth’s leading pair of Chris (Penny Hart-Woods) and Annie (Jane Ellison-Bates) have developed some highly believable onstage chemistry. In fact all six girls plus the head of their W.I. group, Marie (Andrea Clay) have found their own characters brilliantly and all have that distinct individuality which is so important. They can even sing … without being professional singers which is even more perfect. These SHOULD be ordinary women… meeting up each week for plum jam, Victoria sponges, talks on broccoli, or whatever…

The only thing I ought to mention is that Ruth (played by the super-slim Rachel Warren) is supposed to be a big girl who is evidently self-conscious about her appearance. She even compares herself to the song in The Sound of Music ‘I am 16, going on 17…’ saying that with her it is ‘size’ 16, going on ‘size’ 17. In my humble opinion the line should either be changed or dropped because it just isn’t true.

Elsewhere, the cast give strong accounts all round, including school-age ‘newcomers’ played by Jack Fitzsimmons, Lottie Cuerden and Theo Francis. Director Anita Adams – who, herself, needed to take over from the previous director during lockdown – has done a fine job, as has her MD Michael Gilroy who is in charge of the six-piece band (including Gilroy himself on keyboard/piano).

The songs, courtesy of Barlow & Firth, are suitably catchy with the signature song, Yorkshire, probably being the one that most of the audience members will remember – Cora’s rousing Who Wants a Silent Night is also a real foot-tapper. Then again Kilimanjaro and Scarborough are also powerful numbers but for different reasons and delivered in a much more intimate way by Annie.

The musical needed to present another angle to the story and, to that effect, that’s exactly what Firth and Barlow have delivered. Instead of the highly anticipated nude photo scene happening at the end of the first act, to let us follow what happens to the girls afterwards, it doesn’t come along until the end of the whole play. The interim is spent with the family members and getting their reactions to the news that their wife or mother (both in some cases) is about to strip off for a photoshoot. We never usually think about how plotlines affect those people on the periphery… until now.

All we need to do now is watch and see who takes on the show… the same dramatic societies that tackled it ten years ago or the big musical groups. I know who my money’s on!