Pictures: Alex Harvey-Brown

Calendar Girls – The Musical

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham


There are some stories which strike a chord, human stories of human feelings, in theatre Blood Brothers is one, and this is another, made all the more poignant because it is based on a true tale of triumph rising from the darkest of episodes.

It is a musical that will make you laugh and sometime cry, and will melt even the hardest of hearts. We feel for the characters, but along with the empathy, there is also a fear which is what ties us to the story. We all know someone who has had to hear the word cancer.

When Angela Baker lost her husband John to non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1998 her fellow members of the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute did what friends do, they rallied round.

The idea of an alternative WI calendar was born, alternative as in nude. The idea was to raise a modest amount. Depending upon the version you heard the target was £5,000 for blood cancer research, or enough for a new sofa for the visitor’s room at Skipton General where John had been treated.

A sensible ambition from a WI in a village deep in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The calendar appeared in 1999 and by the end of the year had raised £300,000.

A film (2003). a play (2009) and a musical (2015) later and the amount raised for Blood Cancer UK is north of £5 million, which is an awful lot of sofas.

Tim Firth has written all three and for the musical brought in a friend from his home town in Cheshire, Gary Barlow. All three have their differences, but all have that same unerring message of creating something good out of a personal heartbreak.

The stellar cast is almost a Blood Brothers Reunion with five of the seven WI stalwarts having played Mrs Johnstone, so they have had plenty of practice at heartbreak.

We are now in the Knapely branch of the WI, still nestled in the dales, Lynn Paul is Jessie, ex head teacher, no nonsense and “no front bottoms”, while Amy Robbins is the larger than life driving force, Chris, up for a laugh at the drop of . . . well everything as it turned out.

Maureen Nolan is Ruth, her husband has walked out on her, and her best friend is now a bottle. She has no intention of getting her kit off, but her friend, and lots of it, persuade her otherwise, and the 40 per cent proof is in the picture.


Rod, played by Graham McDuff, Chris, played by Amy Robbins, Annie, played by Tanya Franks and John played by Colin R Campbell

Marti Webb is Celia, the sophisticated one, member of the golf club with a little enhancement here and there. One enhancement, well two actually, leave Chris thinking they might require somewhat larger buns to hide somewhat larger . .  . you get the idea,

Honeysuckle Weeks is organist and pianist Cora, who we discover dropped out of music college for personal reasons, reasons which last roughly nine months. She is currently despairing at rehearsing The Messiah with the church choir, not the easiest of jobs as only four members were there and Handel omitted to arrange a Barber’s Shop Quartet version.

Saddest of all is Annie, played with real feeling by Tanya Franks. Her emotive solo Killimanjaro is a real lump in the throat moment, a wife’s anguish at having lost her husband, trying to live a life where things she did as two are now done as one – the line getting wedding rings back in an envelope must be one of the saddest in a song, telling a thousand unwritten stories.

While the rebel end of the WI are going au naturale, there is Marie, played by Paula Tappenden, the rather prim head of the Knapely WI, traditionalist and booker of speakers on subjects as riveting as collecting tea towels, or the history of the Milk Marketing Board.

You suspect naked is not a word often heard and probably never seen in Marie’s household, although, to be fair, the straight-laced, straight-faced chairperson does come good in the end.

John is given an avuncular air by Colin R Campbell, a joker to the last as we see him slowly succumbing to his disease and his death is cleverly and tastefully done as he just rises from his wheelchair, collects his coat and leaves – so simple and so effective.

Graham MacDuff is Rod, Chris’s feller and keen amateur photographer of wildlife, and life doesn’t get much wilder than middle aged women in the buff.

The first act is scene setting, not everyone has seen film or play, so can seem a little slow, and is a little bitty, the rivalry with a nearby WI and the battle with Knapely Rotary mentioned but not really explained.

The real story starts to develop after the interval, although we don’t have the conflict and personality clashes of the play, perhaps the cost of creating a musical is that some of the drama and dialogue has to give way to songs.

The setting from Gary McCann is clever though, with a roll on, roll off settee and boards dropping from the flies to create that signpost wall beloved by hospitals showing directions to a host of departments, or to show the national WI conference.

The main set is an open A-beamed village hall, looking like a National Trust meeting room. Chairs around the side and a piano provide all that is needed for meetings and photoshoots – which must be a nightmare for sightlines!

Musical Director Jordan Alexander leads an excellent five piece band who sound bigger than their number while director Jonathan O’Boyle keeps up a good pace to keep the story moving along once the scene is set.

The calendar girls story is one still evolving and the musical is a bright, cheery addition to the collection.

Barlow has added some clever and witty numbers, some emotion mixed with some triumphal songs, although, as a Lancastrian, I did find the recurring Yorkshire anthem a bit far-fetched, but we’ll let that pass, si’thee. The girls will be bearing all to 07-11-23.

Roger Clarke


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