Thursday, 28 March 2019

REVIEW: Calendar Girls The Musical at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking

Inspired by the true story of a group of ladies who decide to appear nude for a Women’s Institute calendar to raise money to buy a new sofa for their local hospital, in memory of one of their husband’s (and have raised almost £5 million for Blood wise to date), Gary Barlow & Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls The Musical is currently touring the UK.

For those who saw The Girls(as it was known in the West End previously), it is difficult not to compare the two productions, produced by theatre veteran David Pugh. I’d go as far as to say that it’s previous incarnation is one of the best things I’ve seen in the West End for many years. 

This version, rebranded as Calendar Girls The Musical, feels confused. It now feels like a play with songs, but the songs don’t pack enough of a punch in the way that they do in Blood Brothers.What were once big showstoppers are now lackluster and sung-spoken fillers with simple harmonies and adequate singing. I’ve Had A Little Work Done is mostly spoken, but then has a big finish tacked onto the end, which feels bizarre.

Changes to the text and lyrics feel clunky, and it feels for the most part as though the show has lost its heart. That said, it’s impossible not to rally behind the women as they bare all for the famous photo shoot during Act II. The Press Night audience were charged with infectious laughter and a sense of empowerment.

Musical Theatre veteran Anna-Jane Casey plays the bereaved Annie. There’s a brief moment in her Act II number Scarborough where we get a taste of her raw, gut-wrenching grief, but for the rest of the show it’s a bit too vague. I was also yearning for more of a relationship between her and Rebecca Storm’s Chris. It was difficult to believe their 40-year friendship because their time onstage together was so brief.

TV favourite Fern Britton is perfectly cast as WI leader Marie, however the reworking (enlarging) of the role makes her too loveable, and when she suddenly turns nasty, objecting to the idea of a nude calendar, we don’t quite believe it. What does work, is the relationship between Marie and daughter Jenny (Isabel Caswell); Britton, the prim and proper Mum, and Caswell the rebellious teenager who will do anything she can to avoid becoming a WI member.

Karen Dunbar’s Cora, choir mistress and single Mum is lost in translation. We are constantly reminded that she is the daughter of the local Vicar and has a certain reputation to uphold, but her costume and performance are far from it. This is a role that worked so well in the West End, but here the character feels like a show off and not at all embarrassed telling her friends that she conceived around the back of Morrisons.

There is some great work from Denise Welch, as the glamorous ex-air hostess, Celia. Her costumes don’t quite fit the brief, making her look more Mum, less cougar, but the performance is good, with punch lines earning regular bouts of laughter from the audience.

As Ruth, Sara Crowe often steals the limelight. Right from the off she wins the audience over, and continues to shine, arriving for the Spring Fete with 172 homemade scones, despite her husband running off with another woman (again).

I wonder if the show would benefit from a fresh pair of eyes. Matt Ryan’s direction leaves much to be desired, with scene changes often greatly interrupting the action, despite there being so little in the way of set. Robert Jones’ design left me wanting more. At times there was no distinction between the school playground, the flower shop and the WI hall.

Although the show disappoints at times, the reworked score still brings moments of joy, and Firth deserves huge congratulations for continuing to keep this wonderful story of ordinary women achieving the extraordinary alive.

Review by Ian Marshall 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Stalls, J5 | Price of Ticket: £52.65
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