Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s musical comedy comes to the West End with a barrage of laugh-out-loud moments and a heavy dose of “girl power”.
In many ways, The Girls has set itself a difficult task. Based on the 2003 movie Calendar Girls, which itself is based on the real life story of a branch of Yorkshire Women’s Institute girls who strip off for a nude calendar, and has already been adapted into a successful stage play, it’s a story that many are already familiar with, and so seems a bold choice to adapt musically.
The show upends expectations by dropping the “Calendar” from its title, and repositions itself as a story about the friendships between women, rather than being about the sensationalism that the calendar created at the time – it’s not actually until the end of act one that leading lady Chris (a ballsy and brilliant Claire Moore) first comes up with the calendar idea.
Instead, the focus is very much on the community in Knapley, which is rocked when WI member Annie’s (Joanna Riding) husband (James Gaddas) dies from cancer at a young age. From here, with the idea of the WI nude calendar – organised to raise money in John’s memory – bubbling away in the background, we explore relationships across the village.
Taking centre stage is the interplay between Chris and Annie, and Moore and Riding are on top form here. They’re fine actresses, but it’s in the musical numbers that their stage presence really hits home and they make for fine lynchpins to this otherwise ensemble piece.
Other notable turns come from the likes of Claire Machin as Cora, Michelle Dotrice as Jessie, Sophie-Louise Dann as Celia and Debbie Chazen as Ruth – yep, you’ve guessed it, the titular “Girls” of the show, who all have their moment to shine when they’re together on stage.
In fact, The Girls is at its very best when it’s focusing on just them and puts them right at the heart of the action, whether played for high emotional stakes or sheer laughs.
Overall, the script is light and frothy, and the laughs come thick and fast – with the majority of the musical numbers played for comedic effect, too. The lyrics do their best to feel contemporary, and there’s a real sense of Barlow’s craftsmanship behind the songs that pepper the show.
Barlow’s music isn’t the real focus here though. Sure, there are some gorgeous melodies – Sunflower and Dare in particular feel like proper musical theatre belters – but generally the songs tend to feel like an extension of the script (a testament to Firth and Barlow’s collaborative approach), making the show feel more like a play with music than a traditional musical.
In the end, it’s the photoshoot sequence for the infamous calendar that steals the show. By the time it finally comes, acting here as the crescendo to the drama that has played out on stage, it’s well worth the wait and is a real triumph in terms of celebrating femininity, friendship and womanhood; which, ultimately, is exactly what this show is all about.
Check out the amazing shots from the production below and then secure tickets to see it. The Girls is showing at Phoenix Theatre, London. Tickets are on sale now via Ticketmaster.co.uk.