For the professional cynic the very idea of ‘The Girls’, a technicolour bright musical version of ‘Calendar Girls’ co-written by Gary Barlow, might be enough to bring one out in hives. However even those who wear cynicism like a uniform might grudgingly have to acknowledge that even if The Girls just wants to have fun, it’s able to wring out some unexpected poignancy along with the toe-tappers. Barlow’s co-author Tim Firth also scripted the film and the play, so you could be excused for wondering whether artistic fatigue was in danger of creeping in by this third installment, but Firth seems to have been positively energised by the challenges of giving a musical remodelling to the by now familiar real-life story of the group of middle-aged Yorkshire women from the local Women’s Institute who raised over 5 million for charity by stripping off for a nude calendar.
With an ingenious set constructed from rolling hills made out of green-hued cupboards, which spin and conceal a number of hidden doors, the actual stagecraft proves a delight. This is vital in building audience investment in the lives of the close-knit community during a first half which can initially seem overlong, but on reflection is perfectly pitched to earn the emotional catharsis of the far zippier second half. The musical’s order of events are dramatically shifted around from both the play and the film with events now culminating in the notably uproarious nude photoshoot, which certainly makes for a dramatic ending (if causing the first half to feel a tad stretched, as mentioned before). In addition, new subplots have sprung up to help fill the gap, with pride of place taken by the teenage trials of the Larkin-spouting son of one of the eponymous Girls, whose hilariously inept seduction of a newly transferred female student could probably have been extended into an entirely separate spin-off musical on the strength of its comedy.
The Girls wisely makes the tragic death of Annie’s (Joanna Riding, a stand-out) husband its dramatic centre, which enables a light touch of melancholic pathos to suffuse what could otherwise be an unbearably frothy approach. Riding’s two stand out songs Kilimanjaro and Scarborough are deeply heartfelt explorations of loss of a kind that might come as a surprise after the feel good flair seemingly promised by the opening paean to all things about Yorkshire (the creatively named Yorkshire) but it’s this balance of no-holds barred show-biz stomp coupled with the emotive undertones of less conventional subject matter (let’s face it, cancer isn’t the easiest subject to turn into an all-singing all dancing extravaganza) that seems to point towards The Girls proving a big hit with West End audiences.
When the climatic photo-shoot takes place, the musical manages to leap over any feeling of grubbiness and succeeds in becoming surprisingly empowering. Coming down hard on ageism without being didactic about it, The Girls succeeds in serving as the very best of this kind of popcorn entertainment whilst flavoured with that vital hint of something more. It certainly can’t be held up as high art but if you are prepared to meet The Girls on their level it’s hard not to agree that they can hold their own against any of the other musical big boys in the West End.