Calendar Girls is adapted from a real story. As I was leaving the theatre yesterday, I couldn’t help thinking that this is clearly its greatest strength: it is what lends the undoubtedly over-the-top story of this musical, in turn emotional and cheeky, inspiring and unrestrainedly funny, an inherent sense of credibility. It is a quintessentially British story, populated with characters that feel like believable humans, and because of this are endearing and easy to empathise with. Empathy is a big part of what this production relies on, and the well-rounded depiction of its rather large cast of characters is what enables it to achieve it.
Like most real-life stories, it is also a choral story, which does not have a real protagonist, standing out above all others. The many intertwining storylines, both in the forefront of the narration and at the back, paint a collective picture of what life is for a close community, a group of friends, a range of two generations. Rebecca Storm is a force of nature as Chris, lending the musical a constant vitality and delivering some impressive solo numbers. On the other hand, Annie, played with a good balance of vitality and gentleness by Sarah Jane Buckley, presents the compelling backbone of her narration through the depiction of her grief – stark at times, almost devastating in its scope, yet demonstrating that life goes on, and moments of honest, sincere joy can be still achieved on the other side of it, without need for forgetting. The punch delivered by this storyline would not be achieved without the contribution of Phil Corbitt as John, who has the challenging job of coming across as the incredibly likable person that his character is clearly meant to be within the constraint of a rather limited time frame; he makes it work, and the audience, I think, missed him through the rest of the show just as much as the characters did.
The need for this protracted prologue is also the production’s greatest weakness; the narration in the first half can feel scattered and slow in places, and at times it is not entirely easy to figure out where it is going. A certain amount of patience is required for the narration to gain momentum and start going in a definite direction, but in a sense this is deliberate too, though not always successful: it is an accurate mirror of the way things unfold in real life, and contributes to augmenting the sense of familiarity around the story that is being told. The second half picks up a quicker pace, with a good balance of moving and comedic moments. Gary Barlow’s music runs through the whole thing as a connecting thread, adapting to the different moods while maintaining a recognisable voice that holds everything together, like the many reprises of the first song, Yorkshire, a choral enterprise itself that serves as a reminder of the fact that this is really a story about a community, that would make only limited sense without looking at the sum of its parts.
While the main narrative certainly has much to do with an honest, rather brave narration of grief, there are a number of other remarkable points that require a certain courage to address, and that Calendar Girls nevertheless tackles without hesitation: from the need to not let age limit one’s agency (conveyed brilliantly by Lesley Joseph as Jessie, probably my favourite performance in this production), to the way in which one can find the strength to get out of an unhappy, oppressive relationship (Julia Hills as Ruth is believable, charming and vulnerable, in this plotline), to the inevitable awkwardness of budding teenage relationships and the mirroring awkwardness felt by parents caught in the crossfire of their children’s first romantic endeavours.
Calendar Girls has the courage necessary to face all of this and represent it sincerely, and this leads to a number of the most effective moments in the production. More important even, it has heart: and its sincerity, its honest commitment to the (real) story it is telling, is what makes the whole machine work – what makes this a touching and compelling piece of theatre.
Until May 11.