The nation’s affection for that intrepid group of ladies who, in 2000, elected to produce a calendar with a difference – with results more spectacular than any of them could possibly have imagined – has, over the years, become palpable to the extent that they seem to have been with us for far longer than just a couple of decades. 

Their story inspired a hugely successful film in 2003 (who could ever forget that elegant image of Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, and the mischievous tag-line “Some ladies will do anything for a good cause”?), and in 2008 a wildly popular stage play. 

When Tim Firth, author of the play, teamed up with Gary Barlow to fashion the piece into a stage musical, there were those who wondered whether this new medium would capture the public imagination to similar extent. 

Last Wednesday’s opening performance played to a virtually full house, and I suspect that once word gets round, tickets will have been in short supply. Having seen the film, the play and the original production of the musical, I’m as captivated by this true story as ever I was, and so looked forward eagerly to seeing how the newly-revised version would compare.

Hampshire Chronicle: Calendar Girls

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WMOS have been a major part of the city’s cultural life-blood since 1913, and this week’s production is an ongoing indication as to why they remain so. Seldom have I witnessed an audience respond so immediately, and with such affection, as did Wednesday night’s; and I’d also like to go on record as saying that I truly can’t remember the last time I spent such a joyous, life-enhancing evening at the Theatre Royal. 

The singing – solo and company – is heart-lifting throughout, the superbly delivered laughs (too many to count) land with full force and the poignancy of the piece is brought out through the exquisite direction of Olivia Conroy, and the uniformly first-class acting from the company. Again, it was very clear – and I’d like to think that the company felt this, too – that the audience were completely engrossed throughout, and the frequent concentrated silences were palpable.

Hampshire Chronicle: Calendar Girls

Above all, this is a deeply heartfelt and loving musical, and becomes, extraordinarily, an additional love-match between stage and auditorium. We live through the characters’ joys and heartbreaks with them, and our affection only increases as the time approaches for the ladies to undergo the photographic session that will change their lives, and the lives of everyone around them. 
And this, amazingly, is where Theatre and Reality become one as we, the audience, experience at first-hand their initial apprehension, and share their utter elation as they find the courage to …..well, you know! And if you don’t know, and have somehow not experienced this story before, you’re in for a surprise – or rather a series of surprises – that you’re unlikely ever to forget. 

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Hampshire Chronicle: Calendar Girls

There’s a lovely speech in the first act that speaks of the Sunflowers and the Women of Yorkshire, and it becomes triumphantly evident before our eyes. These ladies are gallant and brave, empowering and beautiful, and we love them for it. And I’m speaking as much of the cast as of the real-life characters they portray. When, at the end of the show, the entire audience stood and cheered the company to the rafters, I think we all realised that this had been one very special Shared Experience. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it reminds us of the Power of Theatre at its most joyful. Do go and see this wonderful company in full flight. It’s a rich, enriching evening, filled with laughter and humanity. 

Oh, and if you’re anywhere near as susceptible as me, you might be advised to take the Kleenex. 

Review by Mark Ponsford