The Girls, Phoenix Theatre. *****

The Girls Photograph: Matt Crockett, Dewynters

Based on the play and film ‘Calendar Girls’, Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s musical ‘The Girls’ enters the West End after a long journey. From a workshop in Burnsall Village Hall near Skipton, North Yorkshire, to six weeks in Leeds and a transfer to The Lowry, Salford in 2015; the musical finally had its press night in the West End on 21st February 2017 at the Phoenix Theatre. During its two year journey into town, the show certainly developed a following of loyal fans on route, and as a result the buzz surrounding its West End opening was extremely positive. The plot follows the true story of a group of women who, following the loss of one of their husbands to leukaemia, decide to raise money to buy a settee for the local hospital by posing for, and subsequently selling a nude calendar. To date, these very women continue to raise a great deal for the charity, known as Bloodwise.

I am always wary of work that has been recreated across many genres, in that so often each version has less to offer, and I was guilty of coming to the Phoenix fairly sure I knew exactly what I would be getting. This worried me as a piece of work that addresses such an important subject matter, personal to so many, really needs to have that quality of genuine emotion and honest humour. It's a delicate thing, right? That confession out of the way, I will say I may have known the plot, but this musical is so much more than a familiar story. In its current incarnation, “The Girls” is both heartwarming, uplifting and extremely moving. 

Joanna Riding Photograph: Matt Crockett, Dewynters

Barlow and Firth have done an exquisite job of drawing us into the Yorkshire community which provides the setting for the piece. From the frank, honest dialogue of these strong Northern women, to the more wistful reflective moments within the score; it is easy to find a connection with the characters and feel moved by their story. Joanna Riding (Annie) and Claire Moore (Chris) carry the central friendship in the plot, perfectly balancing good humour with  a more delicate grace; Ms Riding in particular is simply heartbreaking in the ballad, “Kilimanjaro”. However this musical is one of the most clear examples of the power of an ensemble piece currently playing in the West End. Claire Machin as Cora and Michelle Dotrice’s Jessie steal their moments in the limelight with gusto, and the younger characters provide some lighter moments amidst the more diffficult themes within the story. 

Robert Jones’ set provides a beautiful background, which is used early on to establish the rolling Yorkshire Dales. As the story unfolds, the stacks of kitchen cupboards serve a more  symbolic purpose, tracking the emotional journey the ladies go through by the musical’s conclusion. Somehow the closed cupboard doors we see as the piece begins seem to be thrown wide open by the end; the more private elements of the village’s community  gradually making their way out into the open, whilst the central characters overcame their individual personal demons as the day of shooting the calendar drew ever closer; at one stage literally climbing to the top of the hillside for a joyous release. 

This is a production brimming with heart;  written, directed and performed with healthy doses of love and laughter, and as a result, it's impossible not to leave the theatre with an overwhelming sense of happiness. An absolute joy. 

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