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We’re used to screen to stage and play to musical transformations, but screen to play to musical? Before I went, I did wonder what a musical adaptation of Calendar Girls would add. 

Tim Frith has been behind all three versions of this true, heart-warming and charming story, partnering with musicals virgin Gary Barlow no less for this new adaptation. In the first half, it takes us through the illness of Annie’s husband John, which leads to the unorthodox fundraising idea, and the everyday lives and activities of the village’s WI ladies. They visit the WI National Conference to head off their new local leader’s spoiler motion, and then it’s all steam ahead to the calendar’s creation and surprising international publicity.

I found the back story more personal, intimate and moving in this form, and the photo shoot way funnier, so yes, it does add something. Barlow’s score is less a series of songs, more musical storytelling, with a distinctive northern sound, sitting comfortably with Firth’s witty book and lyrics. Firth also directs and it’s an impressive achievement for a team with limited experience in this genre. This, together with many of the cast having limited musical theatre experience, makes it refreshingly free of musical theatre clichés.

The casting is also key to its success. This is where it’s also very unorthodox for a musical, with parts for normal people of all ages, shapes and sizes. I can now see why the Olivier Awards panel has nominated all six leading actresses together; it’s the combination, contrast and chemistry that makes them a superb team. Joanna Riding, Claire Moore, Sophie-Louise Dann, Debbie Chazen, Claire Machin and Michelle Dotrice (continuing her late career flowering, hot on the hells of Nell Gwynn) are a combined delight, and very brave! There’s excellent support too, not least a charming pair of performances as schoolboy sons from Ben Hunter (another worthy Olivier nominee) and Josh Benson.

Like Billy Elliott, Betty Blue Eyes and Made in Dagenham, it’s a quintessentially British show, and oh so welcome when we’re surrounded by long runners, Broadway revivals and juke-box musicals. Definitely worth catching.

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