Calendar Girls – The Musical, Theatre Royal Bath

TIM Firth’s stage version of his 2003 hit film Calendar Girls opened at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2008 as a straight play, based on the true story of the 11 members of the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute who posed for a nude calendar in order to raise money to buy a new settee for the visitors’ room of the local hospital, in memory of John Baker, the husband of one of the members who had died aged 54 of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

It’s a moving story that captured the hearts of the nation and led to the raising of several millions of pounds for cancer charities. In the first two years of the play’s release for amateur production, more than 300 licences were granted, with collections for cancer charities being made at every production.

Tim Firth, after consultation with the real “calendar girls”, wrote a script for the play that did not stick rigidly to the facts, but fitted the spirit of the story. When he joined forces with composer Gary Barlow to add music, still with the original story very much in mind despite the music and lyrics, it moved a little further away from the real people.

In this latest production of the musical, under the direction of Jonathan O’Boyle, with extensive backing from musical director Jordan Alexander and his quartet of musicians, the music appears to have gained in strength so that it looks as important, if not more important, than the storyline. As a result, although there is a stellar cast assembled – Liz Carney as the fussy WI President Marie, Lyn Paul as Jessie the feisty pensioner ex-school mistress, Helen Pearson as Celia the flashy former air hostess, Maureen Nolan as the troubled introvert Ruth, struggling single mother Cora played by Honeysuckle Weeks and Victoria Hay as mourning widow Annie, with Jayne Ashley as the leader of the pack, Chris – all grabbing their chance to make a mark (and replacing the indisposed Laurie Brett and Samantha Seager), although the characters were well drawn it was a little subdued compared with some previous productions.

The men in the story, Annie’s terminally ill husband John and Chris’s ever-patient husband Rod, always have a battle on their hands to match their extrovert wives, but up for the fight, Colin R Campbell and Andrew Tuton fought an honourable draw with their wives and the other WI members. By restricting the settings to the village hall, hospital waiting room and conference hall, designer Gary McCann made far less use than usual of the sunflower motif, so important to the story and hope for the future.

With all the cast equipped with personal mics, this well-presented production, performed to a high quality, lived up to its billing of Calendar Girls -­ The Musical. A shift of emphasis away from the music back to the heartrending story and the courage of those 11 women aged 45 to 65, who won the hearts of a nation by their courage and determination, would have added a great deal extra to this admirable musical offering.



Photographs by Jack Merriman

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