A reimagined version of the musical Calendar Girls tours the UK, stopping at The Alhambra where Leo Owen caught the show

BASED on the true story of a Women’s Institute group in the Yorkshire village of Cracoe, Calendar Girls is undoubtedly familiar territory for many who either followed original news coverage or watched Tim Firth’s later 2003 adaptation. Firth collaborated closely with Take That’s Gary Barlow, whose mum was a huge fan of the film, ensuring Barlow was keen to pay homage to original material.

Faced with the sudden loss of her husband and spurred on by her best friend, Annie (Laurie Brett) decides to honour John’s memory by fundraising for a new sofa for the Visitor Room in Skipton Hospital. Ex-Miss Yorkshire runner-up, Chris (Samantha Seager), has a reputation for spontaneity and outlandish ideas, but for once serves up a blinder, suggesting a Perelli-style calendar to mark a hundred years of the WI in Yorkshire. The plan sounds simple but insecurities and personal demons of the Knapely branch members thwart the project.

Firth and Barlow focus attentions in the first act on scene-setting and characterisation, establishing leads in show opener “Yorkshire”, a slightly disjointed number that swiftly introduces the Calendar Girls. Group pianist Cora (Honeysuckle Weeks), is one of the more willing nudes, while ex-teacher Jessie (Lyn Paul) is reluctant. Ex-flight attendant, Celia (Helen Pearson), worries the golf club gang will judge her and Ruth (Maureen Nolan) is understandably distracted, mourning the breakdown of her marriage. Convincing rule stickler Marie (Liz Carney), initially seems to be the group’s biggest hurdle but as Chris begins to fear repercussions for her teenage son, the calendar seems doomed.

The action is structured around calendar months and feels a tad drawn-out, perhaps fitting for a character piece set in a sleepy community, but still noticeably slow. Gary McCann’s design is immediately striking, realistically portraying an old Methodist hall and utilising minimal signage and props to simply but effectively switch locations.

Under Jonathan O’Boyle’s direction, the cast bring to life a band of mismatched but believable characters. While few songs stand out or boast especially impressive vocals, characters are undeniably well-written. Early scenes with Annie and John (Colin R Campbell) are both tender and surprisingly funny, equalled only by the banter of Chris and Rod’s (Andrew Tuton) happy-go-lucky relationship. Some of Firth’s lines feel clumsily shoe-horned for a laugh while others seem a little dated for a show that essentially empowers women. Nolan is given one of the most memorable songs “My Russian Friend and I” exploring alcoholism and Seager singing “Sunflower” is as close to powerhouse as we get. It’s the climactic piece, however, “Sunflower of Yorkshire” that is likely to be remembered. Firth and Barlow cleverly leave the unveiling until near the end, keeping the audience guessing as to how they’ll stage the photoshoot.

Exploring universal themes, Calendar Girls is undeniably twee but heart-warming nonetheless, delighting the audience and garnering a standing ovation.

Calendar Girls showed at The Alhambra 30th January-February 3rd before continuing its tour: https://www.kenwright.com/portfolio/calendar-girls-the-musical-2024/