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Review: The Girls, at Phoenix Theatre

Gary Barlow helps create moving musical from the Yorkshire dales

02 March, 2017 — By Howard Loxton

Claire Machin, Sophie-Louise Dann, Joanna Riding, Claire Moore and Debbie Chazen in The Girls. Photo: Matt Crockett, Dewynters

YOU must have heard about the ladies of a Yorkshire Women’s Institute who posed nude for a fundraising calendar. There’s been a movie and a play about it. Now Tim Firth, the writer of them both, has combined forces with Gary Barlow to create a life-affirming musical about them.

It’s a real laughter-and-tears piece, without being sloppily sentimental. It starts with birdsong and a vista of the Yorkshire dales, green hillsides made up of stacked cupboards and cabinets – a brilliant setting.

It’s very English and could be cliché but not with these people. From the moment they start complaining about the predictability of some WI lectures things get lively. There is choir mistress Cora (Claire Machin), single-mum, revealing secrets and turning carol singing into a van top rave with Who Wants a Silent Night, Celia (Sophie-Louise Dann) boldly singing So I’ve had a Little Work Done as she displays her cleavage, Ruth (Debbie Chazen), whose husband’s left her finding consolation in My Russian Friend and I, Michele Dotrice’s retired teacher Jessie refusing to comply with What Age Expects and florist Chris (Claire Moore), who dares to enter a bought cake in the Victoria sponge competition when her friend Annie forgets to bake one.

It’s Chris who jokingly starts the calendar idea instead of photographs of churches and resurrects it seriously after Annie’s husband John (James Gaddas) succumbs to cancer, a death gently represented by his departure up the hillside. Joanna Riding’s Annie is particularly poignant as she sings Scarborough, remembering holiday happiness, and Kilimanjaro about the painful chores of widowhood.

Firth has also added a new teenager sub-plot, as Chris’s son (Ben Hunter) is up for head boy: “If Jesus had had teenage kids, the Bible would have been very different,” she comments.

It’s not a complicated story but it is full of surprising people played with a raw truthfulness, its humour and emotion heightened by delightful music and a final burst of sunshine that sends audiences home both moved and very happy.

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