There’s a particular joy to be found in films, TV and theatre pieces that celebrate the relationships, determination and humour of womankind. Calendar Girls captures the essence of this with gusto and alacrity. Its upbeat, yet poignant portrayal of a bunch of WI members experiencing life beyond youth, brings us fun and laughter, but importantly, a sense of hope and worth.
If you’ve not seen the film, be warned: the first half will gently break your heart. It’s a true story too, making it even more of a tear jerker. But for every scene that’s sad, there’s another that’s wonderfully silly, played to hilarity by the seasoned star studded cast. The downside of having ‘names’ in the mix, is that in general this production can’t boast the level of singing prowess you’d ordinarily find in a high profile large touring show. But the upside is that these women exude the X factor (and not in the Simon Cowell sense). Fern Britton, Denise Welch and Ruth Madoc are the most famous faces and each has a warmth, likability and killer wit.
Madoc delivers her lines in her trademark Welsh drawl that has the audience erupting in laughter every time she opens her mouth. When others of her age and stage have long since faded into retirement, she’s touring the country, singing and getting naked on stage in front of thousands of people, every night. The woman is a legend and an example to us all. Sara Crowe is delightful as the conventional, reluctant Ruth, while Rebecca Storm and Anna Jane-Casey melt our hearts as Chris and Annie. Scotland’s own Karen Dunbar is a triumph as Cora. A strong singer, Dunbar is one of those electric performers you can’t take your eyes off, and a very, very funny actor. We quickly fall in love with all of these characters, with – not despite – their quirks.
Not only is Calendar Girls a homily to women, it pays tribute to Yorkshire too – in part thanks to the incredible (and cleverly lit) set that conjures the fells and dales with a fantastic level of realism. It pokes kind fun at rural life with its May days, cake competitions and church choirs, emulating the kind of self-satirising British humour that’s so enduringly popular.
You won’t go away singing all the numbers from this show, they’re mainly unmemorable. But it’s not the score that takes centre stage in this kind of a musical: it’s the feeling you leave with, the inspiration, and the messages it carries.
Running not so far under the surface is another theme. One of (combating) fear: someone you love dying of cancer, ageing as a woman, and getting naked in public in your golden years. They’re all things that strike terror into many a heart. Here we follow a bunch of otherwise unremarkable ladies sticking two fingers up to fear – and societal expectations… and we love it.
Calendar Girls runs at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, until Saturday 13th October.