“It’s not naked, it’s nude”
If all you do each night is pray that you can see a Gary Barlow musical in the UK (I do find it surprising that Finding Neverland hasn’t made its way back over here from Broadway yet) then you’re in luck as The Girls has now arrived. Opting for a premiere at the Leeds Grand and then skipping over the Pennines to the Lowry in the New Year, the show is clearly testing the waters with regards to any potential future plans as it only takes a minute to end up with a big theatrical flop on your hands.
Not that that seems likely for The Girls (though whoever made the choice to lose the ‘Calendar’ from the title must be living in a world of fools). For it is a musical adaptation of the now-famous story of that group of Yorkshire WI women casting off their inhibitions, and their clothes, to create a nude calendar for a very personal fundraising campaign for Leukaemia Research. Tim Firth has already adapted his film into a successful play and remains onboard here – could it be magic third time round?
Sure. The enduring success of so quintessentially British a tale lies in its fist of pure emotion as Annie comes to terms with her head of shattered dreams upon losing her husband to cancer. Best friend Chris does her best at holding back the flood of tears by rallying their WI friends to her side for support and on deciding upon the calendar as their course of action, unleashes a rollercoaster ride they will never forget where everything changes beyond their wildest expectations.
Joanna Riding and Claire Moore both shine as the leads, imbuing the script with more emotional complexity than perhaps might be found on the page. The Girls is essentially frothily light and in the hands of the likes of Harriet Thorpe, Sara Kestelman and Claire Machin there’s japes aplenty, lighting up the sky tonight with their jollity, and leaving their assorted husbands and loved ones bemused, Ben Hunter, Jeremy Clyde and Stephen Boswell standing out here.
Barlow’s score is surprisingly diverse, he must have written a million love songs (well, more than 60 actually) to come up with the tunes here, which are naturally most melodic but don’t always drive with narrative propulsion. Lyrically they’re often very funny – ‘So I’ve Had a Little Work Done’, ‘My Russian Friend and I’ – there are just moments where you want the composer to embrace the musical theatre genre a little more fully.
In the end, this is a show you will never forget even if it isn’t quite the greatest day you’ll ever spend at a musical in Leeds at the moment – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang wins that prize. But this is a strong piece of developing musical theatre writing, well complemented by Robert Jones’ design which creates a strangely beautiful world for the drama. And try and have a little patience, because it surely won’t be long until The Girls hits the West End. Now take that (and party).