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Stopping off at Birmingham’s The Alexandra this week is a brand-new touring production of Calendar Girls - Gary Barlow & Tim Firth’s award-winning musical that comes complete with new music, reworked songs and a reimagined book. 

Based on the 2003 film of the same name - featuring a stellar British cast headed by Helen Mirren and Julie Walters - the show tells a beautiful real-life story of ordinary folk doing extraordinary things for the people they love.

In 1998, Angela Baker’s husband, John, died of leukaemia. In the months following her bereavement, Angela and her friends, who were members of a small, Yorkshire-based Women’s Institute (WI) group, set about raising funds to buy a new and comfortable sofa for the relatives’ waiting room in the hospital where John had been treated. But the way in which they chose to raise the cash was so remarkable that it soon drew the attention of the world’s media: Angela and her friends created a calendar - one in which each of them discreetly posed nude while engaging in a traditional WI activity such as baking, knitting or gardening! 

The ‘nude’ calendar proved to be an absolute sensation, ending up not only covering the cost of a sofa but also raising millions of pounds for blood cancer charity Bloodwise, now known as Blood Cancer UK. Each performance of Calendar Girls The Musical continues to raise money for this charity.

Featuring a cast of well-known singers and actors, supported by a small band, this heartwarming, poignant and hilarious show boasts funny and emotionally charged performances wherever you care to look. It also features no shortage of moments that can simultaneously bring you to tears and make you laugh out loud. Beautifully highlighting the strength which people can find through the support of others, the production is an absolute joy to watch.

Central to the story is the enduring friendship between Annie (Tanya Franks from EastEnders) and headstrong Chris (Amy Robbins from Coronation Street), who is the driving force behind the calendar project. Franks plays the raw emotion of being widowed heartbreakingly well. 

Personally, I love Marti Webb’s portrayal of Celia, who used to be an air stewardess but is now a bored, wealthy, glamorous trophy wife. The line “We’re going to need considerably bigger buns,” made during her nude photo shoot, raised appreciative laughter throughout the auditorium last night. 

Every Calendar Girl gets to perform a solo number at some point during the show, each song revealing something more about the character who’s singing it. The lyrics are hard-hitting, with subjects covered including alcoholism, depression, getting older, body image and the role of women in society. A special mention must go to Maureen Nolan, as the unhappily married Ruth, and Lyn Paul as retired teacher Jessie, the oldest member of the group: Their vocal performances are truly exceptional. 

Moving, empowering, delightfully naughty and featuring strong performances from the whole cast, this new touring production of Calendar Girls is a fantastically entertaining theatrical experience. Tuesday’s opening night at the Alex received a standing ovation from an extremely appreciative audience - and quite right too.

Five stars

Reviewed by Sue Hull at The Alexandra, Birmingham, on Tuesday 3 October. Calendar Girls The Musical continues to show at the venue until Saturday 7 October. The show then returns to the Midlands in November to play the Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, from Tues 14 to Sat 18 November