As heartwarming true stories go, there are few as affecting as that of a group of ordinary middle-aged women in the Yorkshire Dales who did something which turned out to be extraordinary.
The oft-told tale of the women of Rylstone and District Women’s Institute who, back in 1999, bared all for a charity calendar in order to raise money for a sofa for their local hospital after one of their husbands died of leukaemia (to date they have raised almost £5 million for Bloodwise, the UK’s specialist blood cancer charity) has been made into a hit movie starring Julie Walters and Helen Mirren, a long-running, much-loved stage play and an acclaimed musical.
At the centre of all those iterations of the story is award-winning playwright and screenwriter Tim Firth. He wrote the original screenplay, adapted it for theatre and then co-created with songwriter and Take That alumnus Gary Barlow a musical version. It received its world premiere in Leeds in November 2015 prior to a successful tour to the Lowry in Salford and a five star review-studded West End run. Now it is back. Calendar Girls The Musical opens at Leeds Grand Theatre later this month before an extensive UK tour that runs until April next year.
It returns with a name change – three years ago it was known simply as The Girls – and with a few small changes which Firth describes as ‘tweaks’. Regarding the title, he explains that initially they had wanted to make the distinction between the play and the musical, but realised during the West End run that the familiarity of the original title was useful. “This is the final send-off really,” he says. “This tour is where we say goodbye. We had the grace of having two magnificent versions of this go out in Leeds, Manchester and then in London. And we thought ‘is there anything we could improve?’
“So Gary and I threw everything up in the air – we looked at all the songs again and the characters and we made a few tweaks in all those areas – of course we kept in all the stuff that people loved. Now we are about to go back into rehearsals with a new cast. It is incredibly exciting.”
We are speaking in the picturesque Dales village of Burnsall where most of the cast, along with Firth and Barlow and producer David Pugh have gathered to talk to the press and representatives of host theatres to share a taste of what is to come. A top drawer group of performers has been assembled, including journalist, novelist and TV presenter Fern Britton in the role of Marie, the disapproving chair of the local WI. “I was never an actor but I started out in theatre as a stage manager,” she tells me. “When I was a local TV presenter I did take part in two pantos – and was never asked again. It feels terrifying and very surreal – you don’t expect these funny twists in life – but the real Calendar Girls and the rest of the cast have been so welcoming and to be part of such an incredible story is just great.”
If her performance in the village hall later, when the cast sing some of the songs from the show, is anything to go by – including ad-libbing in character as Barlow walks past her “oh hello, it’s Gareth, isn’t it?” – she is going to be hilarious. Firth is delighted she agreed to do it and thinks she will be a perfect addition to the cast. “She is just so naturally funny,” he says. “She had us all in stitches when she read for the part, she was brilliant.”
Britton says she is nervous but excited and feels privileged to be participating. “It is about hope and how loss doesn’t have to mean your life is over – it is so enriching,” she says. “And it is just so very normal and real. These are not women living glamorous lives – they are doing what real women do and to have this outrageous idea and bring it to life so beautifully, not expecting anything and then to see it take off globally, is just fantastic.”
Joining Britton in the cast are Ruth Madoc (a veteran of the non-musical version of the show) as Jessie, Scottish comedian Karen Dunbar as Cora, Waterloo Road and former Coronation Street star Denise Welch as Celia, West End regular Sara Crowe as Ruth, Rebecca Storm (Shipley-born and discovered by Willy Russell who cast her in Blood Brothers in 1984) as Chris, and Anna-Jane (or AJ) Casey (last seen in Yorkshire in two recent musicals at the Crucible Sheffield as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun and Violet Butterfield in Flowers for Mrs Harris) as Annie.
“When I first listened to the songs I was surprised by how emotional I felt,” says Casey. “It is going to be difficult to sing them without crying. The lyrics are so stunning. Tim and Gary have done a fantastic job – the songs are so linked to the narrative, none of it jars. I think one of the reasons the story is still so relevant is because cancer touches lives everywhere but it is also a celebration of women of a certain age.
“Twenty years ago when the calendar first appeared – it is shocking to say – women over forty were considered past it. Well, we are still human beings – and that is why the calendar was so successful, it was the first time you had seen real people with flaws photographed like that; it was beautiful. I am 46 and I’ve had two kids and I am very happy to celebrate my flaws.” The story is also a celebration of female friendship which, given events over the past year or so I suggest, seems more pertinent than ever before. Casey agrees. “Women should stand together,” she says. “With the #Me Too campaign, it is time for women to support and celebrate each other. And that is what this is all about.”
Barlow and Firth, who grew up in the same village, have been friends for over quarter of a century. “We never planned to be a writing partnership,” says Barlow. “We were just mates, but I think we are getting really good at this now. Tim came to me about seven years ago and to be honest writing a musical was never on my list of things to do but he said he would feed me some lyrics. Then very cleverly, he brought me to this village hall and once I had been in this room and met the real Calendar Girls, all of a sudden you know what the heart of the show is. We are in a little town in the middle of nowhere and these women made this immense impact on the whole world.”
Firth feels it is the depiction of everyday courage that touches audiences. “I think more than anything it’s about facing tragedy with hope and comedy,” he says. “That’s what makes it work – and using very Yorkshire dry, ironic and self-deprecating humour. At some point in your life you will have to deal with despair and face it with a degree of wit and optimism.
It is an optimistic show and the most moving bits, when people cry most, are in the second act. It is the moments of solidarity and positivity that are by far the most profound. It is all about friendship and hope. And that is a universal story.”
Calendar Girls The Musical is at Leeds Grand Theatre, August 16 - September 1. www.leedsgrandtheatre.com