A triumph of comedy borne out of tragedy, Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls is the perfect remedy to the dark winter nights approaching.
The production – now showing at The Lowry in Salford – is an emotionally whimsical portrayal of an unlikely feminist movement that longed for freedom from the shackles of the perceived respectability and femininity imposed on them by the rhetoric of the Women’s Institute.
Based on the true story of a wing of the WI from Burnsall in Yorkshire, the cast in this film-turned-musical give a very realistic and emotional portrayal of the struggle for female identity, releasing their raw femininity and sexuality on stage in the most vivid and powerful way possible.
The story begins after Annie (played by Anna-Jane Casey) has lost her terminally ill husband John, before the plot focuses on the chasm his death leaves on her femininity.
The combination of dejection and emptiness felt by his passing is consistently infused with often unrelenting humorous lines, something which really sets this production apart.
The audience are not allowed to mourn John’s death for long because this production isn’t about grief and pity. In fact, it could quite easily gloss over the audience that he had actually died.
That is not what this story is about. It is about ripping up the rules of respectability and focusing on humanity and its ability to rise from conformity and mundanity to achieve remarkable things.
The background is from 1998 when John Baker died after a short battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Inspired by his carefree attitude in life, his wife Angela (Annie in this musical) and her WI mates come up with the idea of a nude calendar, instead of the usual ones of church spires and pretty little lambs.
Ultimately, it is the dynamic between the WI girls that knits this interesting story into one that jerks the tear ducts with pangs of sadness – as well as streams of laughter from those in attendance.
The juxtaposition between the effervescent and indomitable Chris (played by Rebecca Storm), who organises the nude calendar, and the reserved and dutiful serial cake-baker Ruth (played by Sara Crowe) is stark but never unbridgeable.
We are never allowed to forget that respectability and reputation are there to be cast off quicker than Chris’ fluorescent pink bra. The clever lyrics are infused with rhetoric that leave the audience in no doubt that by creating this nude calendar the women are going to relieve themselves of the pressure built up under the constraints of their bra.
The songs do not actually add much to this musical and it is hard to remember any of the tunes after the curtain falls, but that is not relevant. They are almost performed like spoken word, which gives them a heightened air and draws the audience into the story even more.
The wonder of the performance is that there is so little performance. Sometimes is almost easy to forget it is a musical.
The gritty reality of rural Yorkshire is perfectly captured by the production and it gives it a poignancy and emotional gravitas that a glitz and glamour production would not.
Ultimately, people relate to the characters throughout the show. They sympathise with their predicaments and also are allowed to emphasise with the oppression they feel.
The cast really invites us to comprehend the mental juggling of what we want to do against what we ought to do.
The normality of the scenes and the normality of the relationships provide a connection that is not often found in theatre. It’s fair to say that people did not come here for escapism, but came to be uplifted by heroic tales of everyday life.
Nothing summed up the realism of this musical more than the real-life women that the musical is based on stepping out onto the stage just before the curtain fell to absorb the audience’s adulation and bask in the pride of raising £6 million for the blood cancer charity Bloodwise.
It was almost as if these women had simply hopped on the 7:30 bus – eulogised in the opening number Yorkshire – to arrive at tonight’s showing.
It only encapsulated the enduring legacy of this joyful story to see the fresher-faced cast stood next to the original Calendar Girls.
Twenty years on, their story is delighting audiences and retains relevance for women up and down the country – even in the era of the #MeToo movement.
*Calendar Girls is showing at The Lowry, Salford until Saturday, 10 November. You can buy tickets HERE.