REVIEW: Calendar Girls at The Alexandra

Calendar Girls is a typically British, typically northern musical with a gorgeous soundtrack, moments of laugh-out-loud humour and a whole lot of heart that means you leave the theatre beaming from ear to ear.

I want to start this review with somewhat of a disclaimer. I saw Calendar Girls’ first UK tour back in 2018 and instantly fell in love with the show. Having seen the film, I had high expectations but everything about the production - from its cast to its set, soundtrack and humour really resonated with me. It was the show that I felt was denied a chance to shine and was deprived of the West End run it should have been given.

This production, whilst the premise is the same, has made some sweeping changes to the set, the cast, the book and the music - and my overriding feeling is one of confusion. It's not to say that the show on stage wasn't well crafted and well received by the audience...but for me, it just wasn't Calendar Girls.

Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s musical is based on the worldwide big-screen phenomenon of the same name. It charts the story of a group of ordinary ladies who did something extraordinary when Annie's husband dies from leukaemia. Her fellow WI member - and best mate - Chris decides they need to create a calendar with a difference - a ‘nude’ calendar to raise money for the local hospital. They come up against a raft of opposition but, ultimately, support and perseverance pays off.

The first major change is the set. Gone are the rolling hills of the Yorkshire dales and replacing them is the interior of the Womens' Institute building which, traditionally, was signified by a piano and a handful of chairs. In this version of the show, almost all of the action takes place within the WI hall with scenes reworked and, in some cases, inserted to allow the story to flow.

Whilst the staging is beautifully constructed, the real compromise was that we didn't have chance to meet and get to know the characters on stage. We no longer saw their interactions with their children (who are now just referenced rather than being seen on stage as part of a sub-plot) or their family. The original book adds gravitas to a group of women who are now just 'members of a WI'.

So much of the northern humour of Calendar Girls came from interactions between the ladies and almost all of this has been lost. Other characters have been completely written out of the piece, and things that formed a core part of the story have been relegated to just a passing mention, including the relationship between the characters and, most notably, Ruth's drink problem. It's not until mid way through act two, when all of a sudden she appeared on stage with a bottle of vodka to sing 'My Russian Friend and I', that we know the issue exists. Historically, the problems she was having at home were seeded throughout the first act giving reason to her sudden drunken outburst.

Equally as confusing is the positioning of some of the songs, many of which appear to have themselves been moved, cut up or - in some cases - mixed with other songs to create a new 'hybrid' model that meant an element of poignancy became lost.

However, what did save this production was the cast on stage. 

Amy Robbins was phenomenal as Chris, bringing a powerhouse vocal and some excellent comic timing to the character. Equally, Lyn Paul showed a side to her talent that we've not always seen in other roles, giving a stunning turn as Jessie.

Marti Webb has played some of the most iconic roles in musical theatre, however the character of Celia, the former air hostess turned stay-at-home-wife felt very underused in this production. The role traditionally has huge scope for laughs and some great one liners, but in this piece it felt almost like a supporting role - and that's no criticism of Webb's portrayal, just that the part seems to have been dumbed down somewhat in the re-write.

I don't want to sound completely negative. The performers, set and the shows ability to portray an important message all still shine through - however I'm just not sure the new narrative hit all the marks it needs to. 

Calendar Girls is an incredibly special piece of theatre. Some shows make you laugh, some make you cry - Calendar Girls had the very special ability to do both (and quite often simultaneously) but I'm not sure that's as prominent now as it has been before.

When this production does things right, it does them very right - but I"m just not sure the story needed to be re-written.

Calendar Girls plays at The Alexandra until the Saturday 7th October. For more information - or to get your tickets - visit

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