The Girls is a musical comedy, newly opened at the Phoenix Theatre in London’s West End. Based on the film Calendar Girls and the true events which inspired it, it has now been transformed into a musical by Gary Barlow and Tim Firth.
After successful runs at Manchester’s Lowry Theatre and Leeds’ Grand Theatre, The Girls has now transferred to the glittering West End. We went to the show’s opening preview to experience the show for ourselves.
The Girls is based on the true story of the Yorkshire Calendar Girls, where a group of ladies from Knapeley Woman’s Institute get together and do something extraordinary. At the heart of it all is Annie Clarke (Joanna Riding) who loses her husband John (James Gaddas) to illness. With John being a pillar of the community, Annie’s best friend Chris (Claire Moore) comes up with an unusual method in which they can raise money for a new sofa at the hospital in John’s memory.
Chris suggests that they do a nude calendar, using your stereotypical WI related things as props to cover up. At first, the idea is horrifying to the other members, with many not wanting to strip off, and leader Marie (Marian McLoughlin) disgusted at the thought of the WI being associated with it. However, in the end Chris and Annie manage to win the other ladies round, and they produce a calendar which goes on to completely exceed their expectations.
Having seen the film many years ago, we had a vague idea of the plot itself, however, we were unsure how it would work as a musical. Needless to say, with Barlow and Firth at the writing helm, there was no need to worry as they have created something truly magical.
From start to finish, we couldn’t stop simultaneously laughing and crying. There was heartache at the centre of the story, with John’s passing pushing our emotional boundaries to the limit. Joanna Riding was truly superb as Annie – full of emotion, which really hit a nerve. We also cried many a happy tear, particularly near the end of the musical.
However, there was also laughter in abundance. Claire Moore is a hoot and was the perfect casting for Chris. A fantastic character with a gutsy attitude, she had us in hysterics throughout and her chemistry with Joanna ensured that Chris and Annie were the perfect double act.
We had a lot of love for the other WI ladies too. Debbie Chazen, Sophie-Louise Dann, Michele Dotrice and Claire Machin (Ruth, Celia, Jessie and Cora respectively) were full of fun and confidence. They too had a wonderful chemistry, and we found ourselves rooting for them throughout. Their one liners and facial expressions stole the show at times.
There was also a hilarious part when the ladies were discussing getting naked in front of their partners, and Michele Dotrice’s Jessie said that there’s only one man that she has ever gotten undressed for, meaning her husband. However, one of the audience members shouted out ‘Gary Barlow’ which caused mass hysteria on the stage and throughout the theatre.
We must also give a special mention to the three young cast members who played the children of some of the WI women. The characters of Danny (Ben Hunter), Jenny (Chloe May Jackson) and Tommo (Josh Benson) were at the centre of sub plots and provided plenty of laugh out loud moments. In particular, Ben Hunter really stole the show as Chris’ son Danny. In his quest to become head boy, and falling for Jenny, Danny was a source of hilarity throughout and provided some fantastic moments, brilliantly delivered by Ben.
Whilst the musical derived from a tragic circumstance, the community spirit and friendship within the story is really something quite special and was perfectly portrayed throughout. Combined with emotion-filled songs such as ‘Dare’ and an effective stage design, the musical is completely breathtaking. There were a couple of first-night hiccups, however, that is to be expected and we can imagine they’ll be ironed out over the next few days.
As the show came to an end, the cast received an incredible eight minute standing ovation. The audience reaction was unlike anything we’d ever seen or heard, which wasn’t a surprise considering that it was a full house.
We were also treated to a few surprises during the curtain call. The producers made their way to the stage to thank the audience, and in the process they introduced the original Calendar Girls to the stage! It was a truly special moment to see their reaction, as their story had inspired the wonderful show that we’d witnessed. As a final surprise, writers Gary Barlow and Tim Firth were brought onto the stage. Gary even performed his version of ‘Dare’ with the cast, which made an incredible night even more special.
We highly recommend that you take a visit to the Phoenix Theatre to see The Girls – it’s hard to put into words just how enchanting it is. The Girls is an inspiring musical with an enormous heart, which will leave you feeling like you can do anything you put your mind to.