On Saturday night, while three men prepared for an attack at London Bridge, I was down the road in the Phoenix Theatre, watching The Girls.
The twee, joyful musical comedy is by writer Tim Firth and musician Gary Barlow. Based on the true story of the Calendar Girls, which Tim Firth also adapted into an acclaimed 2003 film, it’s set in a north Yorkshire village. The tale revolves around a group of women from the local WI (Women’s Institute). One of their husbands is terminally ill with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. When he dies, the group decide to raise money for the local hospice (in real life, the money went to Bloodwise, formerly Leukaemia Research). They create a calendar with a twist: every month features a picture of one of the women – naked.
Gary Barlow is a masterful songwriter, and his musical numbers added power and energy to what might otherwise have been a rather drawn-out performance. The cast were personable and accomplished, with many of them being familiar household names. James Gaddas, who’s starred in countless TV dramas including Casualty and Coronation Street, played John, the husband who died. Jessie, one of the Calendar Girls, was played by Michele Dotrice – aka Betty, from Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. Cutting-edge it was not, and the quips were a little hackneyed at times. But watching The Girls, with its comforting, familiar faces, was like slipping into a pleasant, warm bath.
The Girls is monocultural: white, middle class, safe. Even the show’s teenagers, who temporarily go off the rails, are drawn into the WI fold at the end. But, within the narrow confines of their Yorkshire Dales village, the ‘girls’ powerfully subverted the accepted definition of female beauty. These days, we’re used to seeing Instagram shots of ‘real woman’, cellulite and all. Clever marketeers use different ages, shapes and sizes in their fashion and beauty campaigns, and wobbly bottoms are a familiar sight on the billboards of London. But the real-life Calendar Girls made their nude debut almost twenty years ago, when the climate was very different. And, in an uproarious sequence in the stage show, the female actors all take their clothes off in front of the audience. Outside of a Swedish sauna, it’s rare to see so many older women with their kit off in public.
The Girls may be too gentle for some. It may be too irrelevant for others. But heart and good sentiment are at its core. That can’t be underestimated. It certainly helped bolster my spirits while I was battling my way back home through a London that was largely on lockdown.
Yesterday I read an interview with artist Grayson Perry in Stylist magazine, and I was struck by how Perry’s words could explain the enduring appeal of the story behind The Girls.
“It’s the banality of love….It’s the banality of what binds us, the everyday things. What makes us happy is the everyday stuff: it’s not swimming with dolphins, it’s not paragliding off the Alps. It’s walking the dog, meeting your friend down the pub, watching your favourite TV show….”
Twenty years after the brave act of the original women, and following the success of the film, the Calendar Girls story has the banality of the familiar and the everyday. Banal it may be, but for some, The Girls will be an escape from the difficulties of today’s world. It’s a barrel of fun. One for a girly trip with a friend, your Mum, the in-laws… In fact, anyone who enjoyed the original film, is almost guaranteed to love the stage show.
The Girls is set to run at the Phoenix Theatre, London until 15 July 2017. Tickets are priced from £19.50. The show will open at the Leeds Grand Theatre on 15 August 2018 and visit 42 theatres across the United Kingdom. Bloodwise, the UK’s specialist blood cancer charity, receive money from the production.
If you want to find out more about visitor attractions in London, visit our ultimate guide to family fun.