There is nothing more stereotypically British than the Women’s Institute; a rousing chorus of Jerusalem, Plum Jam and Victoria Sponge cakes (potentially bought from Marks and Spencer’s) – all encompassed into a musical set in the Yorkshire Dales.
The tale of one more year in Yorkshire is exactly what we find in Calendar Girls: The Musical, written by Gary Barlow and Tim Firth, on a packed-out, opening night at The Regent Theatre in Hanley. The movie, based on a true story, is now a smash-hit theatre production, romping all over a stage-version of the Yorkshire Dales to bring the audience to Knapely, right into the heart of their WI. It is a year in Yorkshire full of heart-aching loss, multiple innuendos and a nude charity calendar – accompanied by songs to set the mood.
We are introduced to the hustle and bustle of the small Yorkshire village as the curtain rises, with cries of excitement coming from the audience, as teenagers run to get the school bus, which is stuck behind a flower lorry from Amsterdam. Arriving through the gate and making their way across stage, the intertwining lives of the rural community thrives as characters laugh and greet their neighbours.
The ladies of Yorkshire seem to fit into the stereotypical WI mould… until you meet Chris, excellently played by Rebecca Storm, who joined the WI to impress her mother-in-law. She hates plum jam, can’t bake to save her life and her knitting needles are nowhere to be seen – the wild child of the village back in her youth. Mrs Conventional, Chris may not be, but Jenny looking through the Town Hall window, the new troublemaker in town, is a shadow of what Chris used to be and sees a room full of women doing the things their mums used to do – a reminder of the way we may stereotypically view the WI.
Annie is Chris’ best friend and partner-in-crime, one step above Chris’ non-institutional WI woman, as she can bake a cake. Annie (Anna-Jane Casey) has found her soulmate in John Clarke, a happy-go-lucky people person, played by Phil Corbitt, who is the friendliest of neighbours. So, when a shock diagnosis rocks the village, he doesn’t let it get him down with true Yorkshire spirit, he keeps fighting so he can see his wife turn into a Sunflower, his favourite flower.
A heart-broken Annie sings of solo trips to town on the bus, and not being able to reach the beach towels for Scarborough, a sign of what is to come as the trips to the hospital and the uncomfortable relative’s room mount for the couple. But this doesn’t stop the Knapely community from rallying round to help-out and keep morale boosted with their unconventional Christmas songs and their cheeky win at the summer fair.
When the inevitable happens the village community comes to terms with the loss of a loved one, with hardly a dry eye in the room, Chris arranges sunflowers to change the mood of the audience, on an emotional roller-coaster. Finding her son’s nude calendar with tastefully positioned flowers, Chris is struck with the idea of changing the theme of their WI calendar from views of Knapely bridges to views of something more private! It is definitely a challenge to convince the WI to take part, especially as the ladies, who may or may not be of a certain age, view nudity as a need to know basis!
Fighting the rising doubts from the women of the WI Annie takes the floor again with a moving song, Kilimanjaro, this time leaving no dry eye in the house, as wedding rings are returned to her in an envelope but that isn’t holding her back, taking the audience with her, as the next line she sings the sun hasn’t set yet proving the true fighting spirit of Yorkshire.
And the rest is history, covered by a currant bun, a ball of wool and a teapot! A tale of the extraordinary brought to life on a picture-perfect setting of Yorkshire and whilst it may not be everyone’s cup of Yorkshire Tea it certainly put a smile on the audiences faces as we followed a year in the life of the characters. There were laughs a plenty, a straight cucumber innuendo and songs cleverly worked to hone every joke were hilarious and didn’t feel forced. All the emotions produced in the play proved it was just as simple as the lives we lead, if not better choreographed. Ordinary, stereotypical WI women breaking the age-old mould to makes us laugh and cry, which thoroughly deserved the ovation it received, slightly more important than winning the top prize for the best Victoria Sponge cake.
Calendar Girls: The Musical runs from the 13th to the 17th November at The Regent Theatre, Hanley.