By Alicia Denny
Calendar Girls The Musical
Until November 23
Chichester Festival Theatre, Oaklands Park, Chichester PO19 6AP
It’s 20 years since the members of Rylstone and District Women’s Institute shed their clothes to pose for a nude calendar, yet their inspiring story still stirs an emotional response.
After the huge success of a film of the true story of a fundraising initiative by a group of Yorkshire women, which included the widow of a leukaemia victim, in 2003, a stage version five years later was an equal success and now a musical, written by Gary Barlow, of Take That fame, and Tim Firth, who was involved in both its other dramatisations, is on a national tour.
With its lovely backdrop of green hills and an opening song called Yorkshire, the audience is left in no doubt of the geographical origin of the story and how the close-knit community reacted to the loss of one of the village stalwarts.
Inevitably, the first half has to establish the characters and engage the audience’s emotions in order to succeed. The pace was rather slow and, with the words of the songs being so important to following the story, it was a shame some of them were unclear when sung and probably better as dialogue in between the songs.
Two lively numbers, Who Wants a Silent Night and Spring Fete, offset the pathos of the terminal illness of John Clarke and there was depth, yet humour, in the roller coaster songs performed movingly by Sarah Jane Buckley as John’s wife, Annie.
Her best friend, Chris, played by Rebecca Storm, is equally effective with a strong voice and believeable dialogue. She really came into her own in the second half ,which contrasted with the first in terms of its vivacity and fewer but more interesting songs.
The other main women characters were great support, both in solos and collectively, reinforcing the theme of togetherness in adversity leading to achievements for all.
As with the film and stage play of Calendar Girls, this musical version with its universal message emphasised with original songwriting skills is a heartwarming tale which keeps on giving both to the millions who have watched it and Bloodwise, the charity benefiting from performances.