The traditional view of that redoubtable British institution, The Women’s Institute (or WI to its friends), is one of middle-class ladies of a certain age baking and knitting in a cosy village environment, far from the struggles of the real world. Subverting this stereotype, a branch from Yorkshire decided to produce an ‘Alternative WI Calendar’ to raise money for a new sofa in the wait room of a local hospital, following the cancer diagnosis of a friend. The twist was that all the ladies appeared in various states of undress whilst posing in a variety of mundane activities. The idea was a runaway success, eventually raising over £3,000,000 for Leukaemia Research and subsequently spawning a successful play, film and this stage musical in 2015.
Penned by Tim Firth (Kinky Boots, Neville’s Island) and Gary Barlow (yes, the nice, talented one from Take That), the show is irresistibly funny and heartfelt. From the opening bars of ‘Yorkshire’, the witty lyricism is evident and the songs manage to introduce and delineate the characters sharply. We meet Annie (Sarah Kirk), wife of the diagnosed John (Nick Sample) and the beating heart of the piece. Her stoicism and dogged determination are encapsulated beautifully by Kirk, especially during the two stand out songs in the show (Kilimanjaro & Scarborough), both illustrating grief and bereavement as the tedious and lonely horror it can be. Outstanding vocal support is given to Kirk by Dawn Flint (Chris), Helen Swain (Cora) and Annabelle Fox (Celia) with the latter particularly sassy during ‘So, I’ve Had a Little Work Done’.
Comedy timing was a particular strength within the cast, demonstrated at both ends of the age scale by both the redoubtable Jessie (another scene stealing performance by Celia Bonner) and newcomer Adam Byrne playing Danny with confidence and wit in his Garrick debut. A few slips and missed cues notwithstanding, the interplay across the entire ensemble was naturalistic and relaxed and allowed the humour in the dialogue to shine throughout.
Director Joseph Meighan showed his confident grasp of producing large cast musical theatre and demonstrated trademark humour by utilising the audience as the WI conference in the second act. My reviewing colleague (and a paid up WI member) confirmed that the audience represented the demographic to perfection. In the wrong hands the conclusion could have felt like ‘Carry On up the Women’s Institute’, but the final reveal is handled with sensitivity, taste and excellent blocking to hide the attributes of the actors on stage!
In the tradition of Billy Elliott, Made In Dagenham and The Full Monty, this warm tale of ordinary people pulling together to achieve extraordinary things strikes a chord in this post covid/cost of living crisis world we now inhabit. It manages to tug at the heartstrings one moment and have you in stitches the next, making a point a style that is far more redolent of Victoria Wood than Ken Loach and all the better for it.
Verdict: Get down to Altrincham Garrick Playhouse this week for a bit of Jam and Jerusalem and amateur musical theatre of the highest quality. https://www.altrinchamgarrick.co.uk/shows/calendar-girls-the-musical/
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 20th June 2022
North West End Rating: ★★★★