The maxim by which author Tim Firth achieved celebrity must surely be, “If at first you succeed, try, try again.” He succeeded in 2003 with his screenplay of Calendar Girls, starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, followed five years later with a profitable West End stage adaptation. Now, working in tandem with Take That’s Gary Barlow, he has recycled the material yet again, this time as a full-blown musical called The Girls. A screen version will probably follow.
The central idea – as everyone by now must know – is based on an actual event in which a Yorkshire woman named Chris (Claire Moore) in the show, but Angela Baker in real life, hit on a fundraising gimmick to provide a new sofa for a local hospital where the husband (James Gaddas) of her close friend Annie (Joanna Riding) recently died of cancer. What Chris hatched was a nude calendar to be posed by several middle-aged women, regardless of shape and size and all belonging to the local Yorkshire Women’s Institute.
While some of the group thought it a brilliant idea, others were more cautious and baulked at the notion of stripping for charity – regardless of how worthy the cause. If the calendar shoot were to go ahead, Chris had her work cut out for her. It was, of course, a spectacular success, and the calendar, in which all the “models” were nude but discreetly posed, was a hit both locally and nationally. So much so, in fact, that the money raised not only bought the hospital a new sofa but was enough to build a new wing, which they named after Annie’s late husband John.
It’s a truly inspiring human interest story. But how many times does it merit being told? As indigenous small-scale British musicals go (think Bend It Like Beckham and Made in Dagenham), The Girls isn’t without quality, but its first-act structure, which attempts to provide the main characters with involving backstories, is sketchy and schematic. Also, Firth and Barlow’s rather homily-driven, not particularly tuneful score too often eulogises the earthly values of living in the Yorkshire Dales. “The seasons come and go and yesterdays don’t change” is typical.
The lyric till reeling round my head, though, is, “Don’t think of the colour of your hair, think of the colour of your heart.” Sorry, but I’d rather not. Though the show is clearly aimed at women “of a certain age” and touches on such everyday issues as loss, grief, self-esteem and coming to terms with body image, there is not much here for the younger generation, which is only marginally represented by a few clichéd teenagers, including Chris’ disapproving teenage son. One moment he condemns his mother for debasing herself by posing for the contentious calendar; the next, without rhyme or reason, he’s changed his mind and gives his approval.
The actual calendar shoot, which, unlike the play version, comes at the end of the evening, is the best, most revealing scene (physically as well as emotionally) in the show. It’s the equivalent of “the money shot,” so to speak. It’s what the audience has been waiting for all evening, and it doesn’t disappoint.
Given the two-dimensional nature of much of Firth and Barlow’s book, all the performances are excellent with Riding, Moore, Gaddas as well as Debbie Chazen (Ruth), single-mum Cora (Claire Machin) and Sophie-Louise Dann as Delilah making the most with the least.
Robert Jones’ set – comprising a series of cupboards, cabinets and drawers (representing everyday domesticity) stacked up in the shape of a hill (representing the scenic Yorkshire countryside) – is an ingenious metaphor for the musical’s homegrown content.
Director Firth goes all out to emphasise the feel-good factor in the material, and the spontaneous standing ovation at the curtain call bodes well for the show’s long-term future. I just wish I’d enjoyed it more.