The Girls, Phoenix Theatre, London ★★★★★

Originally reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

Musical adaptations of films are nothing new. Nor are adaptations of plays. Adaptations of films that were themselves based on plays are rarer – but having the film, play and now musical written by the same person is unique.

The writer at the heart of all three iterations of Calendar Girls – now shortened to The Girls in its new musical form – is Tim Firth. Having co-written the screenplay to the 2003 film and written the 2009 stage play which improved upon it, Firth now collaborates with Gary Barlow to deliver a moving, often hilarious musical comedy.

The tale of how the membership of a Yorkshire Women’s Institute branch posed for a nude calendar to raise funds for the cancer ward after one of the women is widowed, The Girls restructures the story to concentrate on the build-up to the women’s disrobing, dropping the emphasis on the aftermath that dominated the original film and which formed the bulk of the play’s Act II.

The result is a narrative structure which builds to a collective sense of personal fulfilment which, while being substantially simpler than its predecessors, suits the temperament of musical theatre well.

Joanna Riding gives an exquisitely nuanced performance as Annie, who during Act I is coping with her husband’s failing cancer treatment and the threat of life without him.

James Gaddas gives an effective performance as John, the man whose love of life and lyrical writing about the sunflower drive the women to adopt the flower as their symbol of optimism. He naturally bows out within Act I, but John’s presence is felt throughout due to Gaddas’ ebullience.

Providing the vital role of Annie’s wild-at-heart best friend Chris, Claire Moore fleshes out a character that is required to be comedic foil, emotional bedrock and self-doubting mess, often within the same sentence.

It is a beautifully recognised character, one that clearly deserves the love afforded her by her husband Rod (Joe Caffrey) and Riding’s Annie, and demands and receives the same from the audience.

And yet at times she is overshadowed by Ben Hunter, making his West End debut as her son Danny. Displaying an immaculate sense of comic timing, Hunter’s interactions with best friend Tommo (Josh Benson) and wayward wild child Jenny (Chloe May Jackson) – themselves no slouches when it comes to comedy – add depth to a supporting role that goes on to further enrich the whole ensemble.

And when it comes to the ensemble, it is the women who dominate. Sophie-Louise Dann and Claire Machin lead a group of women of an age that is traditionally underserved by musical theatre, limiting them to supporting roles of wives and mothers.

It is both refreshing to see the situations reversed here, with the likes of musical stalwart Jeremy Clyde reduced to a walk-on role, while also feeling completely natural thanks to Firth’s warm direction and an ensemble that is full of fully realised characters.

Barlow’s music works well to further flesh out the story and the characters. His talent for musical phrasing and melody – in evidence ever since he started writing songs for Take That and many other pop performers – marries expertly with the wry humour of the lyrics, so much so that the narrative flows from book to lyrics and back with a seamlessness rarely experienced in commercial musical theatre.

The combination of Barlow and Firth’s writing within these songs brings out the mix of pathos and comedy reminiscent of the late Victoria Wood’s better works.

‘Kilimanjaro’, Riding’s haunting solo number about the difficulty of performing everyday tasks alone that were previously done as a couple, is heartbreaking, while ‘Who Wants a Silent Night?’ is a rambunctious swing number that riffs on traditional Christmas carols and deserves to be a new Yuletide number on the cabaret circuit.

But it is the ballad of self-empowerment, ‘Dare’, that sticks in the mind both as the show’s take-home melody and its mission statement.

The Girls is a tribute to women overcoming their own personal inhibitions for the greater good, and one that inspires as much as it entertains.