SWEET AS A NUT, SHARP AS A TACK
Helpless, really: I was putty in its hands. And I caught it a few days late, so no risk that the ecstatic giggles in the stalls or the standing ovation were contrived by artful first-night insiders. No, it is a happy thing: this musical about sadness, loss, betrayal and imperfect female bodies getting their kit off for charity. Happy because human, a loving tribute to rural England, friendship and ordinariness.
Fact is, It made me cry. Not just the at delicate sadness of the cancer story, as James Gaddas’ decent funny kind John declines through the first half , and Joanna Riding as his Annie – in a standout, starry, subtle performance – sings the most beautiful of wistful domestic laments in advance. It wasn’t even just when John finally rose hairless and unafraid from his wheelchair to climb out of sight over a set of Yorkshire Fells made – in a witty design by Robert Jones – entirely of kitchen cabinets.
No. The tears really were a tribute to the way that Tim Firth celebrates unpretending commonplace lives: ordinary loves, jokes, rivalries, pretensions, communities and families. He did it before, without needing to piggyback on a famous film (which of course is his too: Calendar Girls, based on the true story of a small WI embarking on a witty nude calendar). For a few years back Firth gave us at the Crucible in Sheffield a marvellous studio musical This Is My Family. This bigger show – jointly with Gary Barlow – is recognizably of the same family in its elegiacally comic tone and the way it uses music to lift and launch a message of endurance and wry affection, because real life is “all about coping, fabulously, with terrible mistakes” . The lines are just as slyly surprising too: Cora the choirmistress remembering “I started my career as a mother behind Morrison’s with a blues guitarist” , and the outing of Celia the ex-air-hostess as having “increased the capacity of her overhead lockers – who cares how silicon is the valley?”.
Interestingly, my companion found the first half too slow, impatient for the eureka moment when the flirtiest of the women – Claire Moore as Chris – gets the calendar idea. But me I just enjoyed the build up , harmonic set-pieces and all: the Christmas float, the WI meeting, the flirting teenagers and the fete where “Every year on the first of May / England puts Englishness out on display / Showing how fun used to be/ Sometime around 1683..”
Yes, sharp enough. The second half takes us into the conflict and argument, with a few lovely cameos from the husbands about how rarely they actually see full wifely nudity “like in the film Jaws, you never see all of the shark”. And, of course there is the vigorously staged hilarity of the photo-session. It is a true ensemble, where every one of the cast shines: Riding is centrally remarkable, as is Moore, but there is some beautiful work from Debbie Chazen as reluctant Ruth, from Michele Dotrice’s doughty old Jessie and from the teenagers, especially Chloe May Jackson. Tim Firth himself directs, with Jos Houben credited for “comedy staging”, which pays off very nicely indeed.
But the main fact is, I did tend to keep on crying. It is an unusual fit for the unforgiving West End, but deserves a very good run indeed.
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