What do you get when you combine Take That’s Gary Barlow, the amazing true story of a group of women in Yorkshire, and some of the brightest female talent in Britain? ‘Calendar Girls’, which has previously found immense success in movie and play format, is now on its first UK tour after a successful stint on the West End in 2017. I caught it at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh, where it is playing until the 13th of October.
From the celebratory opening number ‘Yorkshire’, I could clearly see the talent of the women on stage before me. Yorkshire women Annie (Anna-Jane Casey), Chris (Rebecca Storm), Cora (Karen Dunbar), Ruth (Sara Crowe), Celia (Denise Welch), Jessie (Ruth Madoc), and Marie (Fern Britton) form the main female company, as members of the Women’s Institute in their village. While it is clear some of the women have had more vocal training than others, it’s more than made up for in passion, and, in the case of Dunbar, brilliantly quick comedy.
While jokes abound, the switch of emotion is clear and concise. Casey’s Annie, who documents her husband John’s (Phil Corbitt) decline in health in the heart-wrenching ‘Very, Slightly, Almost’, is an absolute powerhouse, filling the theatre with her voice. Her onstage friendship with Storm is also a highlight. This is, after all, a story about female friendship and solidarity. The performances are incredibly believable – it really feels as though we are seeing a snapshot of real life, and it stirs incredible emotion in the audience. I cried more than once.
The show follows a nice rhythm as it veers off to show a story arc concerning the women’s children – Tommo (Tyler Dobbs), Danny (Danny Howker), and Jenny (Isabel Caswell) – and only cements the message of the importance of the support of those around you. The audience was flush with families, and it certainly struck a chord.
The most redeeming scene, in my opinion, was the actual shooting of the calendar – each woman strips down to varying degrees of nudity on stage. The musical doesn’t shy away from the judgements that the bodies of older women are subjected to, and the tone is entirely celebratory and positive – as it should be. Each woman receives incredible support from the audience. It is inspiring to see. I can only hope that shows like this, that not only showcase stories of female empowerment and body positivity, but thrust it under stage lights for all to see, will continue to be made.