Even before the curtain went up, there was a real buzz in The Georgian Theatre Royal on the opening night of Richmond Operatic Society’s Calendar Girls – The Musical. The shows have all sold out ahead of the run and there has been a scramble for any odd tickets that do become available.
The show celebrates the true story of Angela Baker and her husband John who died from non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in 1998. After his death, Angela and her friends in the village WI began a quest to raise money for a new sofa for the visitors’ lounge in the local hospital by posing for a nude calendar.
The rest is history and they have subsequently raised millions to help the battle against cancer. The calendar inspired a thousand other calendars, a movie, a stage play and this musical by Tim Firth and Take That’s Gary Barlow.
(As a quick aside – I learned from the programme that writer Tim Firth has been to the Georgian Theatre as a child and remembered thinking “Wow, this is what a REAL theatre looks like.” Good to know!)
Set in Yorkshire, it is a story of northern warmth and resilience that obviously resonates soundly with folk around these parts. The opening musical number ‘Yorkshire’ sets the scene immediately with its grassy meadows and timeless scenes of cosy village life that is soon to be disrupted by John’s tragic diagnosis.
The plot itself revolves around the women of the WI, all very different, all with their own fascinating back stories. Central to the story is the enduring friendship between the widow Annie (the Angela Baker character) and her high-spirited and headstrong friend Chris who is a former Miss Yorkshire and the driving force behind the calendar. But there is also Ruth with the secret drink and husband problem who is only able to join the ladies’ cause after meeting her “Russian friend”, at the bottom of a bottle; single mother Cora and the relationship she has with hormonal son Tommo; and the retired teacher Jessie who never does what age expects and has some of the best one-liners in the show – “No front bottoms!”
In fact, you are taken on quite a few emotional journeys throughout the evening and the subject matters are certainly not fluffy. They touch upon everything from death to domestic violence and teenage sex and depression – yet somehow this 19-strong cast manage to raise the roof with joy. You also feel that there is a real sense of support, togetherness and empowerment on stage. The calendar project affects everyone from the women themselves to their husbands, sons and daughters.
As you would imagine from the subject matter, this is a show that is a roller-coaster for the emotions. There can have been few people in the audience whose families haven’t been touched by cancer and the scenes where Annie rails against the unfairness of the disease are particularly poignant. John’s death is sombrely portrayed by the donning of dark coats and shawls.
Yet, this journey of grief is offset by some very funny moments and the script is riddled with laugh-out-loud dialogue, as when a harassed mum declares: “If Jesus had had teenage kids, the Bible would have been very different” or the banter surrounding the cosmetic surgery undertaken by ex-air hostess Celia who has her own reasons for considering the calendar.
The evening ends on a real high and there is much hilarity (and admiration) when the ladies finally do whip their clothes off on stage, their modesty preserved by some strategically placed vegetables, cakes and pianos.
All in all, this is a strong performance from a society that is currently celebrating its 100th anniversary. It is a show full of heart which admirably showcases the considerable local acting and musical talent that exists amongst its membership. We look forward to another century of first-class community entertainment!