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A CurtainUp London Review
The Girls
"You wait years for a life model and then a bus load turn up." — Lawrence the photographer
The Girls
Cora (Claire Machin), Celia (Sophie-Louise Dann), Annie (Joanna Riding), Chris (Claire Moore) and Ruth (Debbie Chazen) (Photo: Matt Crockett)
I really wasn't very keen on the play version of The Calendar Girls which I saw in 2009 and so wasn't expecting much from the musical version at The Phoenix, now called The Girls. I couldn't have been more wrong.

I loved Gary Barlow and Tim Firth's fresh production of The Girls. I warmed to the characters, their honesty and genuine qualities and I really cared about them as they put their body image insecurities to one side and braved to bare all for the photographs.

The Girls is not a cynical money making attempt to convert a successful film into a musical. Singer and composer, Gary Barlow, a member of boy band Take That and well known in Britain as a judge and mentor on various talent singing shows from The X Factor to the BBC's Let It Shine, was born 20 feet from where his collaborator Tim Firth was born in the small Cheshire town of Frodsham. Incidentally Daniel Craig also grew up in this talented town.

Barlow and Firth met through a songwriting competition of the BBC's A Song For Christmas when 15 year old Gary Barlow came second with his power ballad and one of the judges was Cambridge University student Tim Firth. Firth had entered this Christmas competition many times as a schoolboy. Gary's mother loved the film of Calendar Girls and on seeing the play for the third time, she took her son. This is the kind of genuine hook up and idea that reminds me of Melanie Griffith's Tess's back story in the movie Working Girl which leaves Sigourney Weaver's character Katharine Parker dumbfounded.

The musical has had proper try outs in Leeds and Salford's The Lowry before arriving in the West End. It is interesting that rather than music by one person and lyrics by another and book by a third, that The Girls has only two people who have written it, Gary Barlow and Tim Firth. It is also directed by Tim Firth.

The calendar is Chris (Claire Moore)'s idea after Annie (Joanna Riding)'s husband John (James Gaddas) has died of cancer. She wants to raise money for a new sofa in the family room at Skipton General Hospital. The musical opens with a song about "Yorkshire" in different months of the year, the beautiful county where these women live in the Yorkshire Dales. John was a park warden for the National Park and his love of flowers is reflected in the musical with his sunflower seedlings being planted all over the countryside by the women after his death.

The musical follows John's illness from first diagnosis through chemotherapy to the loss of hope. The set is a Yorkshire hillside but made up of green sprayed cupboards, cutlery and other domestic items found in the home.

The song "Girls" introduces the women: Ruth (Debbie Chazen) the plump girl whose husband neglects her, Jessie (Michelle Dotrice) the retired primary headmistress who does crosswords with her husband, Cora (Claire Machin) the single parent, choir mistress, the brilliantly busty Celia (Sophie-Louise Dann) ex air hostess and golf club member. Chris the rebel, Annie John's wife and Marie (Marian McLoughlin) the condescending and annoying Chair of the local Women's Institute. At the carefully planned by Marie, Christmas celebration in Dickensian costume, Cora breaks out and takes it up a beat to deliver the full rocking version of "Who Wants a Silent Night?"

The song I loved best was Celia's, Sophie-Louise Dann's commentary on her enhancement surgery "So I've Had A Little Work Done" with its witty lyrics and tongue in cheek humour, "At some point as an air hostess you upped your baggage allowance, increased the capacity of your overhead lockers, " comments Cora. Joanna Riding sings about the challenges of widowhood, doing so much alone or for the first time contrasting with those on more recognised accomplishments, like world travel expeditions in "Kilimanjaro"

Leading up to the photo shoot, we see each woman's insecurities emerge as The Girls face the challenge and really strip off on stage. Yes really! It is life affirming and sincere. Not for them is the security of the men from the same county in The Full Monty who "bared all" with blinding flashbulbs preserving their modesty. This is part of the success of The Girls for me — the honesty of the production, the fact that I really cared about each and every woman (with the exception of Marie who gets her comeuppance) down not just to brilliant performances but with music and songs that speak to our emotions.

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The Girls
Written by Tim Firth and Gary Barlow
Directed by Tim Firth
Starring: Debbie Chazen, Sophie-Louise Dann, Michelle Dotrice, Claire Moore, Joanna Riding, Claire Machin
With: Marian McLoughlin, Josh Benson, Victoria Blackburn, Joe Caffrey, Jeremy Clyde, John Davitt, Soo Drouet, James Gaddas, Jenny Gayner, Steve Giles, Frazer Hadfield, Ben Hunter, Maxwell Hutcheon, Chloe May Jackson, Shirley Jameson, Jane Lambert, Rebecca Louis, Judith Street
Set and Costume Design: Robert Jones
Musical Staging: Lizzi Gee
Comedy Staging: Jos Houden
Orchestrator: Richard Beadle
Musical Director: Richard Beadle
Lighting Design: Tim Lutkin
Sound Design: Terry Jardine and Nick Lidster
Projections designed by Alex Uragallo
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7615
Booking to 25th July 2017
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 22nd February 2017 performance at The Phoenix Theatre, 110 Charing Cross Road London WC2H 0JP
Musical Numbers
  • Yorkshire
  • Girls
  • Scarborough
  • Who Wants A Silent Night?
  • Mrs Conventional
  • Sunflower
  • Dare
  • Protect Me Less
  • So I've Had A Little Work Done
  • What Age Expects
  • Kilimanjaro
  • My Russian Friend and I
  • For One Night Only

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