Melissa Blease reviews Calendar Girls – The Musical, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 9 November

In February 1988, John Baker was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He died after just a few months of treatment, aged just 54, leaving his wife Angela bereft. In an effort to keep Angela going, her best friend and fellow Women’s Institute member Tricia Stewart suggested they find a way to raise money for a new sofa for the Yorkshire hospital ward where John was treated and came up with the idea of a calendar featuring their fellow WI members carrying out ‘typical’ WI activities (baking; piano playing; flower arranging; etc)… in the buff. And they did it! The calendar was launched on 12 April 1999 and sold 88,000 copies in that year alone; to date, the girls’ efforts have raised more than £5m for Bloodwise, a UK-based charity dedicated to funding research into all blood cancers.

In 2003, Tim Firth and Juliette Towhidi wrote a screenplay for director Nigel Cole’s film based on the calendar girls’ story. In 2008, Tim Firth adapted the original film script for Hamish McColl’s stage production, which premiered at the Noël Coward Theatre the following year. Then, in September 2016, Firth and Gary (Take That) Barlow announced that The Girls, a new musical based on both the play and the film, was to open in January 2017… and it’s pretty much been touring the globe ever since.

In the film, the girls get their kits off at the very start of the drama. In the play, the unrobing brings the first act to a close. The musical, however, apparently ostensibly aims to flesh out the deeper-seated motivations of the key characters involved before the calendar is even discussed: tragedy, grief, loss, ageing, body issues, parenting, relationships are all in the mix before The Big Reveal takes place. And of course, this being a musical’n’all, there are songs – lots of songs – and some impressive vocal fireworks to carry them along, plus a handful of Alan Bennett style/Tom Stoppard-esque one-liners adding refreshingly droll badinage to the dialogue.

But while the instantly-arresting opening extended chorale (Yorkshire) sets us up for spectacular aural frolics, few of the 17 numbers that follow – with the exception, perhaps, of the archly witty I’ve Had A Little Work Done and My Russian Friend And I (a moving paean to over-reliance on vodka) – live up to initial great expectations from the man who bought us Back For Good before organising the spectacular national sing-a-long that was HM The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert back in 2012.

Meanwhile, the female characters never quite get to reveal the authentic depths of the circumstances, experiences and emotions that bind this band of sisters together despite the polished, perfectly-casted ensemble’s very best efforts to inject personality and humour into erstwhile predictable stereotypes.

Sarah Jane Buckley as soon-to-be (and eventually) widowed Annie paints a subtly moving, tender picture of what impending doom and eventual grief looks like as fear, despondency and despair slowly give way to triumph and strength against all odds. That strength comes, in the main, from upbeat but distinctly down-to-earth mega-mate Chris (Rebecca Storm, as the best friend we’d all like to have).

Lisa Maxwell is totes AbFab as glamorous cougar Celia, Sue Devaney is upbeat and hilarious as feisty but vulnerable single mum Cora, and Ruth Madoc bolsters her National Treasure status as Jessie, the retired school teacher who staunchly rages against the platitudinous attributes associated with ageing.

The supporting cast are all suitably supportive too, most notably Isabel Caswell and Danny Howker as lovestruck teenagers Jenny and Danny, whose awkward/witty/sweet little exchanges provide a cutesy little soap opera back story of its own as the drama rolls along.

But overall, Calendar Girls – The Musical strays a little bit too close to the discomfort zone of male writers telling women how women who have passed the 40+ watershed behave rather than acknowledging, respecting and celebrating the fascinating characters behind a uniquely triumphant, thoroughly uplifting real life story that’s laden with far more fortitude than the musical theatre version’s fluffy feel-good vibe depicts.

Main image: Sarah Jane Buckley as Annie, Lisa Maxwell as Celia, Rebecca Storm as Chris, Ruth Madoc as Jessie, Judy Holt as Marie, Sue Devaney as Cora and Julia Hills as Ruth in Calendar Girls – The Musical. Credit: John Swannell