The Girls may not be the best British musical ever, but it is an outstanding one. Gary Barlow’s score is bursting with sunny songs, ballads for belting, and characterful numbers, tuneful and thrilling. Tim Firth’s book is charming, sentimental and powerful. But it’s the women who star who make the show take off – tender, honest and finely crafted performances that will make you laugh, cry and never forget them. This is glorious, old-fashioned musical splendour of the type we see all too rarely.
There are few worthwhile, iconic, or even cult, musicals which don’t have women in key, perhaps show-stopping, roles. There are even fewer musicals where all the key roles are played by women. With The Girls, Gary Barlow and Tim Firth have taken a significant, and very welcome, step to redress the imbalance. It’s a triumph in so many ways, but it’s greatest strength lies in its ability to highlight the magnificence, strength and beauty (inner and outer) of everyday – not ordinary, not insignificant, not plain – extraordinary women.
Based on Tim Firth’s hugely successful film and play, Calendar Girls, this musical is a celebration – of mothers, wives, daughters, friends, professionals: women of all kinds. For this musical version, Firth has added a storyline involving two sons and a daughter which provides an interesting tangential sub-plot, but essentially the narrative is the familiar one from the film.
Chris and Annie are life-long friends, and, although they are both members of their village’s chapter of the Women’s Institue, their individual spirits don’t really enjoy the conservatism inherent in the meetings and activities, although they do enjoy the friendships. Both have happy marriages, but only Chris has a child, a son, Danny. They laugh and cry together, a lifetime of intimate history binding them strongly.
Annie’s husband, John, contracts leukaemia and dies far too young. Unsurprisingly, Annie is devastated. Chris has ideas to brighten her day: plant a crop of sunflowers and do a cheeky artistic calendar involving the suggestion of nudity. Chris takes no convincing as to the first but some in relation to the second. So do the rest of the women who make up the local WI. The journey to the production of the calendar, a bumpy ride full of highs and lows, makes up the bulk of the narrative, especially in the second Act.
Happily, there is no dwelling on John’s untimely death, and the sub-plot with the youngsters provides an amiable respite from the concerns of the WI as well as an opportunity for some extra character work. Even so, as with the rest of the piece, it is the girl who provides the spice.
Throughout The Girls, the male of the species is suitably outside the spotlight. Rightly so.
Barlow has provided a score that is rich in musical joy. The opening number, Yorkshire, sets the tone perfectly, a sweet, syrupy number which introduces most of the major characters – rather like a slice of steamed pudding floating in rich custard reminds one of country, genial female cooks and childhood, so Yorkshire evokes a similar sensation through sound.
Numbers such as Mrs Conventional, Dare, So I’ve Had A Little Work Done, What Age Expects, My Russian Friend And I and Kilimanjaro feature strong melodies and lyrics which reflect the mood and sensibilities of the characters who sing them perfectly. Perhaps not unexpectedly, given Barlow’s pop background, the score has a fresh but familiar feel, a constancy that mirrors the empathy the audience has for the individuals.
On reflection, the most remarkable attribute of Barlow’s score is how entirely different its effect is from his other contribution to modern musical theatre: Finding Neverland. Each score feels right for its topic, and neither sound related. If Barlow can continue to produce an output as variable as these two shows, he will be a formidable figure in the annals of music theatre.
Tim Firth directs with admirable clarity and appropriate restraint. He understands these characters well, and even though the book might provide opportunities for excess and caricature, Firth keeps a tight rein. The comedy is gentle and organic, not forced and extreme. Warmth comes from the characters; there are sharp moments and sad moments, but the tide of friendship and support never goes out.
Central to this is the dynamic duo of Claire Moore and Joanna Riding, who play Chris and Annie respectively, lifelong friends, naughty sisters-from-different mothers. They establish the length and depth of their friendship easily and convincingly, creating the firm foundation upon which all of the other events play out.
Moore is quite exceptional, capturing precisely the sense of a free spirit pinned down by reality, but capable of flying when the wind is right. She is funny and bracing, a riot of rule-breaking motherhood, a decent, caring and serene soul. Moore’s capacity for whimsy is infectious and it is a real delight to hear her warm, brilliant voice on a West End stage again.
Riding’s Annie goes on a cathartic journey of pain, loss and awakening and Riding ensures that every step is dignified and exact. She sings with breathtaking insight, charging every lyric and every phrase with truthful resonances. Much of what she sings is quietly devastating, but ultimately uplifting. She makes a perfect match for Moore’s Chris; together they are a dream.
Michele Dotrice is a human laugh generator as forcibly retired teacher, Jessie. She lands every single laugh and then some. Sophie-Louise Dann is sultry and game as the air hostess turned genteel wife, bursting at the seams to make her mark. Debbie Chazen wears the character of Ruth like a second skin, having played the role in the play version, and comes into her own in Act Two. Each actor has a terrific number in the second Act which lets them shine, and each ensures the moment is not missed.
As Cora, Clare Machin is the very model of a modern single mother, raising her rambunctious but immensely likeable son, Tommo, with care and firmness. She has her wild side too, most obviously given vent in her crowd pleasing Who Wants A Silent Night? A freer, more exuberant top belt would have made this a complete show stopper. Machin has a wry, deadpan delivery which ensures dialogue gets full value.
The trio of youngsters are refreshingly good. Ben Hunter’s tall, gangly Danny and Benson’s Tommo convince as good lads who are best friends. Danny’s pursuit of new-to-the-village bad girl Jenny (a fine West End debut from Chloe May Jackson) rings true in a forbidden fruit kind of way. It’s a slightly angsty tale of young love, set to cut through the tale of Chris’ and Annie’s solid marriages. It works a treat and Benson brings an earthy, ripe humour which is welcome.
The husbands are all good, with Joe Caffrey (Chris’ Rod) and Maxwell Hutcheon (Dotrice’s Colin) special treats, carving finely wrought characters from little. Steve Giles shines as Lawrence, who wields the camera when the buns come out.
Robert Jones’ set is charming and very green, coming to real life when the tree in the village square appears. There aren’t really any ensemble dances but the musical staging (Lizzi Gee) works smoothly and entertainingly. There are no dull patches or “necessary” bits. It all works well.
Two quibbles. First, in 2017 there is no reason why every character should be white. Second, The Girls may be the worst name for any musical ever, but certainly this one. Call it The Calendar – audiences will get it.