Phoenix Theatre, London
You might think there’s a finite number of times you can flog the same horse before it drops dead in front of you. Then along comes Gary Barlow, well past the point of ubiquity, with a score that is pleasant enough, if seldom shattering, and suddenly here you are again, wondering where the good ladies (girls seems a tad patronising) of the Knapeley WI are going to put their baps this time.
What elevates this latest retread of Calendar Girls far above the stage play, which followed the film, is a bold reworking of the story’s structure. Director and storyteller Tim Firth, who also wrote both previous incarnations, has chosen, this time, to focus on the motivation of the women involved, rather than the madness that ensued after they first got their kit off.
Hence we are treated to a transformative piece, in the best traditions of musical theatre, in which each “girl” is given time, and a song, to explore her own individual story.
We begin in “Yorkshire”, an anthem to life lived according to the seasons, in which the Dales are represented by a mountain of kitchen cabinets, wittily designed by Robert Jones.
In fact, it is the sheer mundanity of village life, suddenly interrupted by the sucker-punch of cancer, that provides the whole with its heart.
When John dies without much fuss – he simply climbs the kitchen cupboards towards Heaven – his widow Annie (the brilliant Joanne Riding) delivers two ballads of startingly beautiful banality. In “Scarborough”, she recalls their precious trips to the seaside, and in “Kilimanjaro”, which John had always dreamed of climbing, she reflects that “there is nothing in Nepal/More scary than the step from the kitchen to the hall”.
Throughout, Barlow’s songs, played at the piano and backed by a small brass band are pitch perfect, for Yorkshire. You can almost detect the ghost of Victoria Wood willing him and the cast on.
The only part of the hospital we ever glimpse is the tatty sofa in the relatives’ room. But that’s enough for Annie’s best buddy, Chris, (Claire Moore, whose soprano is as bright as the sunflowers to which John was so partial) to hit on the brilliant wheeze of a charity calendar to replace it.
Of course, it’s not really about a sofa, or even a cheeky calendar, but carrying on, and the cast does so brilliantly, each “girl” overcoming her own individual Kilimanjaro as she struggles to come terms with a personal demon – be it age, physical deterioration, low self-esteem or the rules of behaviour that govern life in a tight-knit rural community, of which the WI itself is a microcosm.
In a village like this, every young person is a source of curiosity and potential alarm, so the minor sub-plot involving Chris and her troubled teenage son – “If Jesus had had teenage kids, the Bible would have been very different” – doesn’t prove more than a minor distraction and at least provides an intriguing portal to Chris’s (and Annie’s) own past.
The always reliable Sophie-Louise Dahn is a scream as former air-hostess Celia, who admits: “So I’ve Had a Little Work Done”. “Your dress codes don’t apply, when you’re Miss July”, she sings as she swings at the local golf club. Michele Dotrice is convincingly naughty as the retired primary school teacher who delights in (finally) flouting convention, and you can almost smell Ruth’s (Debbie Chazen’s) fear as she knocks back the vodka (“My Russian Friend and I”) and prepares for her close-up.
The calendar shoot, when it comes, is a triumph of bare-cheeked chutzpah. And no mean feat of choreography either. Despite Chris’s declaration that: “We’re going to need considerably bigger buns,” the ladies’ modesty is as well preserved as the Jam that goes with Jerusalem. Better than I expected? No, The Girls is a million times better than that!