If Calendar Girls the Musical was a cake, the recipe would read something like this, writes Vicky Edwards...

Take an inspirational true story and add one talented writer, one world-famous pop star and mix their expertise thoroughly.

Once you have a perfect blend of warmth, humour, poignancy and music, line a 12-inch diameter cake tin with an accomplished production team and cast in a clutch of our finest actors and singers. Lace with a sublime supporting cast and rehearse well.

Garnish with a stunning set and gorgeous lights and serve to rapturous applause up and down the country.

Thrilled to be one of the girls, (but keeping her kit firmly on – “I’m playing Marie, so no nipps or noo for me!”) presenter and best-selling novelist Fern Britton cheerfully admits that she almost missed out, initially telling her agent that on instinct it wasn’t for her.

“And then came the call saying that Gary Barlow would like to have a cup of coffee and a chat with me!” she exclaims, eyes bright and smile wide. “Suddenly I found myself in a room reading the script, with Gary, Tim Firth [writer], the producers and the casting director. And boy am I glad that they persisted!” she laughs, admitting that her instinct must have been on the blink.

“Never was I happier to be wrong about something. Some people don’t like musicals because of all the bursting into song, but with this you hardly know that a song has started until it’s halfway through. You are totally pulled along by your earholes and the songs really advance the story. Tim Firth is a God! He wrote the play, the movie and the musical and he’s like a Yorkshire Stephen Sondheim with the lyrics. As for Gary, he has written some incredible songs,” she enthuses.

The Oxford Times:

Having previously starred in the stage play version, Ruth Madoc is the old hand of the assembled cast, but she wasn’t convinced about returning to the subject.

“And then I realised that my agent had been working on it for the past six months so I thought I’d jolly well better go and do the audition!” she hoots, adding: “I expected them to want me to play Marie again, but they said they wanted me to play the older woman this time, which is wonderful; Jessie has got some fantastic lines.”

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But if Fern and Ruth had reservations, you could say that Rebecca Storm was born to play the role of Chris. Literally: the West End leading lady with a career spanning four decades was

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been born and raised just a few miles from where the real Calendar Girls is set.

“The local relevance is extraordinary, but also David Pugh [Calendar Girls producer] was my first ever producer! In 1984 he gave me my first opportunity in the world of proper grown-up theatre in Blood Brothers.” she says, smiling at the memory.

Based on the true story, Tim Firth’s film and his subsequent award-winning play, Calendar Girls is a reworking of the award-winning and critically acclaimed The Girls, which played to packed houses in the West End last year and is now returning home to Yorkshire to kick-off a new UK & Ireland Tour. Loose Women’s Denise Welch stirs her tea and ponders on why the story, in various incarnations, has endured.

“It is about friendship and community and I think we all relate to that. Celia, my character, has been off as an air hostess and has always been looking for something more. When she comes back she realises that it was already there. As we get older we all realise that,” she says thoughtfully.

The Oxford Times:

One of Scotland’s best-known comedy actors, Karen Dunbar (playing Cora), adds her voice to the melee. “I think people will go away thinking about the value and the shortness of life,” she says, pausing to allow Anna-Jane Casey (Annie) to jump in.

“And that positivity can come from awful situations and swing people into action,” interjects the doyenne of musicals including Billy Elliot and Stepping Out.

“The power and innovation of women is amazing,” says Karen, to a general burble of agreement.

Best known as the first bride in the hit movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sara Crowe (playing Ruth) picks up the baton. “It is an instinctive thing to do, especially in situations that are terrible. Doing something positive becomes a survival mechanism.”

“I love men, but women make things happen,” claims Denise, who confesses that while she is absolutely a woman’s woman, the first question she asked was who else was in the show. “Because I’m too old and long in the tooth to be dealing with egos and temper tantrums,” she explains. “Thankfully we all get on, but second to the script that was the most important thing to me.”

It is a show that attracts a hugely diverse audience, for sure. Surreptitiously nicking the last piece of Victoria Sponge, I ask why the ladies think this is.

“This is an incredibly human story,” Fern elucidates. “Life is all about loss, love, making a mess, making mistakes, clearing it up and atoning. It is a terribly hackneyed phrase, but our show is life affirming.”

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“And it is a different proposition when you have music to the extent that we have,” says the fabulously glamorous Ms Madoc, who, as an experienced musical theatre actress, knows a thing or two about the genre. “The music expands the subject far bigger than the play ever was. It’s fabulous and audience are in for a real treat. The music makes it a wonderful emotional journey but it is seamless; it slides into the dialogue. It never feels like ‘here comes a song’, and that makes it a very powerful piece of theatre. I am really on the boil about it!” she proclaims, the Welsh lilt making her words sound appropriately musical.

Are they worried about disrobing on stage – does the ‘Great British Take Off’ hold any fear?

We’re not prancing around like we’re in Hair!” laughs Rebecca. “And it’s done with so much comedy.”

“We’ll have great big pineapples or whatever in front of us, so the audience won’t see much,” Ruth waves any concerns aside. “Besides,” she says, a naughty glint in her eye, “at 75 you don’t care!”

Noisily chorusing that Ruth Madoc has the most fabulous boobs of them all, Anna-Jane cuts across the good-natured rabble-rousing: “It’s more of a celebration of how different everyone is.”

“As you get older you get back to who you really are and the nakedness is part of that,” offers Sara.

But the show has even more to offer. Having already raised huge amounts of money through merchandise and bucket collections at each performance, the charity Bloodwise will continue to benefit from the production – a fact of which the ladies are extremely proud.

“These women did something spectacular,” marvels Rebecca, recalling how twenty years ago members of a small Yorkshire Women’s Institute produced a nude calendar that captured global attention and that, to date, they have raised in excess of £5 million for research. Quite something when you consider that they intended only to raise enough to buy a sofa for a hospital waiting room.

“We need that research,” says Ruth, quietly telling of the loss of a young father who died from leukaemia in her home village. “The whole village was broken-hearted. I have had bladder cancer, but I am fine now. I am a very lucky woman.”

“Perhaps nobody knew how much this man John meant to them until he was suddenly no longer there?” proffers Fern. “My mum died recently and only today did I acknowledge that my landscape has changed. It can be hard to make sense of.”

What they are adamant about, however, is that this is a show that should not be missed. “It’s universally appealing,” says Karen; “and a tribute to friendship,” Sara finishes.

Discussing the tour, which takes them all over the UK, the ladies all profess themselves to be looking forward to seeing new places and revisiting old friends.

“I prefer touring to West End. I like the feel of companies; the family orientation that happens and that harks back to how it was when I started out 60 years ago,” says Ruth, who is going to bring her husband along for the ride. “The kids and the grandchildren will come in dribs and drabs. I’m a National Trust fan so we’ll be exploring and we will see lots of friends along the way, too.”

“For those who say that they don’t like musicals, just BOOK! I promise that there are no jazz hands,” declares Anna-Jane.

“My hope is that people leave the theatre with massive smiles on their faces,” says Denise.

I don’t doubt they will.

* Calendar Girls is at the New Theatre Oxford from next Tuesday to Saturday, April 16-20. Tickets from atgtickets.com

The Oxford Times:

Gary Barlow is on a winning streak

As Stephen Sondheim once said: “Musical comedies aren’t written, they are rewritten.” Gary Barlow and Tim Firth talk to Vicky Edwards about their newly reworked Calendar Girls the Musical…

As a film and a stage play it was always Calendar Girls, but its graduation to a musical seemed to be a good time to evolve the title. The Girls proceeded to play to full houses across the UK, as well as enjoying a successful West End run. Time, then, for creators Tim Firth and Gary Barlow to cheerfully declare ‘job done’ and to move on?

Not a chance.

“I think we all left London a little bit confused,” admits Gary. “Everyone who saw it loved it, but we never quite found our audience in London. So we took a good look at the piece and Tim and I shut ourselves away for a couple of months to streamline it.”

Thinking back to the real story of the women’s institute of a small Yorkshire village that persuaded some its members to whip their kit off for a tongue-in-cheek calendar in a bid to raise enough money to purchase a sofa for their local hospital, I observe that few stories could sustain so many incarnations. Writer Tim Firth is in no doubt as to the secret of the story’s longevity.

“It endures not because the calendar is now part of English history, or because of the disease it was inspired by. Even more common than the disease itself is the need to find a way of combatting adversity in life, be that illness, depression, family or social adversity,” he tells me, adding:

“This musical is a medicine for all of those issues because at its heart it is comedy. The most potent weapon in the calendar and the musical is using comedy to fight that which oppresses you emotionally, and also to claw your way back out of a situation you are in. I firmly believe that. When you lose your sense of humour all is a lost.”

No danger of that with this cast, which stars some of our funniest female actors and best-loved gigglers, including Ruth Madoc, Fern Britton, Sarah Crowe, Denise Welch and Karen Dunbar, as well as musical theatre royalty Anna Jane Casey and Rebecca Storm. Collectively playing the bare naked ladies of the title, even pop legend Gary Barlow is a tad awestruck by this tour de force.

The Oxford Times:

“David and Dafydd [producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers] put an amazing cast together,” he tells me, a beaming smile testimony to his approval of the line-up.

Talking of happiness, he won awards for the stage play but is Tim now as happy with the musical version?

“I think it is the best incarnation,” he says, thoughtfully. “There is much more we can tell now because the music becomes an accelerator of story; it allows you to say much more than you can with a play and allows you to be faithful to the characters and for them to speak directly to the audience. You have a whole new set of tools with a musical.

“Music is a very potent force emotionally and you can use it to counterpoint, too. It keeps all the emotions airborne. The songs are seamless; they lift you up like a magic carpet and that is very exciting for me.”

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As for their working partnership (Tim also wrote the book for The Band the smash-hit musical that uses a Take That soundtrack to tell an original story and that Gary, along with Robbie, Howard and Mark, are also producers of), both agree that the combination of having known each other since childhood and being Yorkshire lads who know how to graft has made the process a good deal easier.

“Working with Gary feels effortless. We have the same work ethic and we’re from the same stock,” nods Tim. “Our backgrounds and parents have instilled in us immense gratitude for the position we find ourselves in. We are doing our hobbies for a job and we never take that for granted.”

When I met the ladies of the cast they hailed Tim as a God when it comes to writing for women. It is a skill he attributes, in part, to the rough and tumble of his Yorkshire playmates as a kid.

“I had a peer group of mates where there was no division between boys and girls; we were a gang. We treated girls with the same lack of air and grace as we did the boys. So yes, I wrote my mates, my mum, my wife. I treated them with the same boxing gloves because we all have faults. It works because it is honest.”

“It does,” confirms Gary, adding: “and we are really looking forward to taking it back to where it began: the regions. After all, it is a regional story.”

Agreeing that its Yorkshire setting contributes to making this a quintessentially English show, might Tim might turn his hand to creating the ultimate British musical of our times, I enquire? Brexit the Musical has a ring to it, no?

“You never find out what the story is about until you start writing it and I always start with just a tiny glimpse. A storyline,” he responds, taking the diplomat’s way of politely declining my suggestion.

Saving me from feeling too dejected, Gary jumps in, almost bouncing in his seat with anticipation.

“We reckon we have added another ten percent to an already great show. I am so excited to take it to an audience.”

His enthusiasm is well-founded. Having seen the show in London I can confirm that you do indeed leave the theatre with your heart well and truly lifted – a feeling Tim is familiar with.

“My kids lift my heart, but also I lost my Dad recently and he was a huge influence. He was an inspirational teacher, artist and creator and he found the best in people and made them see colours in themselves. That is at the forefront of mind at moment; the joy of children and trying to do for my kids what my dad did for me,” he says quietly, going on to share a glorious idea that he is mulling over for a show based on a choir he and his wife ran when his own children were in primary school.

“Even though the time was right to move on, when we stopped doing it I realised that I missed that injection of the weekly three-quarters-of-an-hour of sunshine and that unabashed enthusiasm.”

But in the meantime it’s all about Calendar Girls.

“I can’t wait to see it open. I think it’s going to be amazing,” declares Gary. “Bring it on!”

And so say all of us. Surely the dream team that is Firth & Barlow is up there with Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lloyd-Webber & Rice?

Too modest to comment, Tim neatly sidesteps the suggestion.

“I’m ready to take my hands off it now,” he says.


* Calendar Girls is at the New Theatre Oxford from next Tuesday to Saturday, April 16-20. Tickets from atgtickets.com