As Calendar Girls the Musical returns to Yorkshire, Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad watches from the wings.
It’s 7.20pm on Wednesday evening and two of the most powerful men in British theatre, according to The Stage newspaper’s annual list, are pacing backstage at the Leeds Grand Theatre.
Pugh is short, wearing shorts and muttering to himself. He makes cracks to staff passing by to alleviate a palpable tension. Rogers is taller, more composed. Both have a lot riding on the next three hours.
This odd couple have been taken to the hearts of Yorkshire theatre lovers over the past few years. They are the men who brought together the multiple award winning writer Tim Firth and Take That’s Gary Barlow to create The Girls the musical, which received its world premiere at Leeds Grand in November 2015. Based on Firth’s movie Calendar Girls, which told the story of the now globally famous Yorkshire Women’s Institute members who stripped for a nude calendar, The Girls added Barlow’s music to the tale and re-presented the show as a musical.
It was warmly received in its spiritual home of Yorkshire, but when it went into the West End, despite critical acclaim, it struggled to win the audience it deserved and closed five months later. Now, Calendar Girls the Musical is back, with a revamped script, new songs from Barlow, new set and new director. I was invited to watch the production from the wings at Leeds Grand, to receive an insight into how this theatrical behemoth comes together.
Out front, an invited audience of several hundred have gathered to watch the final dress rehearsal. The stage manager announces to a surprisingly loud backstage collection of folk ‘we’ve got clearance’. Shortly after 7.30pm, Pugh checks his microphone is on and heads on to the stage of Leeds Grand to warm applause. The cast, which includes Fern Britton, Ruth Madoc, Rebecca Storm and West End star Anna-Jane Casey, have vacated their dressing rooms and are waiting in the wings.
Pugh, a real theatre beast and a consummate showman, gives his typically self-deprecating welcome to the audience and, we’re underway.
From my vantage point I can see the stunning set. The previous incarnation of this musical had an impressive set, but this is a far simpler version which brings the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales on to the stage. I can also see the attention to detail on the set: the artificial grass – at least I assume it is artificial – glistens as though covered in dew. Denise Welch stands in front of me, stage left, holding a golf club. Karen Dunbar, who plays Cora, comes over and plants a kiss on the cheek of the Deputy Stage Manager, the DSM, who earns every one of the capital letter in his title. Pugh finishes his routine and there is a moment of stillness backstage. Phil Corbitt, who plays John, wanders on stage quietly singing a song and carrying a wheelbarrow. We’ve begun.
The strains of Yorkshire, the signature tune of this musical, picks up and slowly begins to fill the auditorium. The chorus of ‘One more year in Yorkshire’ makes the hair on the back of the neck stand to attention and as the song builds to its crescendo the young actors Isabel Caswell, playing Jenny and Tyler Dobbs, playing Tommo, belt out the tune in the wings. A stage hand dances. It is a seriously infectious tune that begins this musical, setting the scene beautifully. Next to me I spot Derek Elroy, who plays Lawrence the hospital porter and the key role of photographer. He’s singing from the wings like he’s centre stage.
I perch on one of dozens of heavy boxes stacked up at the side of the stage and the magnitude of this achievement hits me. Pugh and Rogers have produced Art in the West End and on tour, Equus, The Band the musical and The Play What I Wrote and you realise it needs this kind of pedigree to create something on this scale. 7.55pm and the story is picking up its canter. The DSM is ‘calling’ the show – speaking into a headset and telling the light and sound desk what to deploy when, a stage hand carries the wheelbarrow into the wings ready for another cast member to push on, Anna-Jane Casey brings the theatre to a moment of magical standstill with a solo number before charging off stage left and running round the back of the stage to enter stage right moments later.
We’re coming to a point where the ladies are about to disrobe, so it feels right to make my excuses. I sneak into the back of the auditorium and approximately four minutes later am in floods of tears. From the front it looks beautiful, from behind the scenes it looks a well-oiled machine with flashes of organised chaos. It is an extraordinary thing to behold.
How fortunate for Yorkshire that we have it and how fortunate for the creators that we inspired it.
Calendar Girls The Musical, Leeds Grand Theatre, to September 1. 0844 8482700. www.leedsgrandtheatre.com