In 1999, a group of women from a Yorkshire branch of the Women’s Institute released a calendar featuring not cakes or sleepy village churches but themselves in the nude.
One of the women had recently lost her husband to leukaemia and the hope was that the calendar might raise funds for The Leukaemia Research Fund.
Nineteen years on, and a great deal of raised funds later, the story has become embedded in the national consciousness.
The film adaptation, Calendar Girls, hit cinema screens in 2003 and a stage version followed in 2008. And now, it has been developed by Gary Barlow and Tim Firth into a rather wonderful musical that is funny and touching in equal measure.
From the very first scene-setting ensemble, “Yorkshire”, Barlow’s knack for resonant melodies is evident. The song is a wonderful Penny Lane-like patchwork of little stories that draws us into the everyday routines of the sleepy village that will form the backdrop to the not-so-sleepy story about to unfold.
The action then turns to the Women’s Institute where we meet the central protagonists: Marie, Annie, Ruth, Cora, Jessie, Chris and Celia.
The cast is stellar, including a number of very familiar faces in Fern Britton, Sara Crowe, Anna-Jane Casey and Denise Welch. Very rarely does stage or screen focus so squarely on women just talking with other women.
It was refreshing to hear the sorts of everyday conversations and concerns that are often overlooked in favour of the more dramatic. In the excellent “Mrs Conventional” the women reflect on their noble and not-so-noble reasons for joining the WI.
Later we see Annie struggling to come to terms with and make sense of her husband’s death. It is in Annie’s songs of love and loss that Barlow shows his real greatness. When Annie sings, “Take a three-piece suit a man you loved once wore, take it in a bag to Oxfam, then walk out the door”, one can’t help but be moved.
But perhaps the most striking thing about this musical is its ability to capture the spirit with which a group of friends can respond to a tragic event. One by one, they overcome their reservations, their fears, their age and, frankly, their Englishness to come together.
And in doing so they not only help their friend to raise money but also, in baring all, they become a celebration of life in the face of death.
Journal rating: five stars