Over a cuppa with three of the cast of Calendar Girls The Musical, Vicky Edwards discovers that Ruth Madoc is ‘perky,’ Fern Britton’s intuition sometimes malfunctions, Denise Welch can’t be doing with temper tantrums, and Gary Barlow and Tim Firth are to musical comedy what Mary Berry is to baking…

If Calendar Girls The Musical were a cake, the recipe would read something like this: Take an inspirational true story, add one super-talented writer and 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 a cast featuring 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 nips or noo for me!”), presenter and bestselling 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!

“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’re 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 - he’s like a Yorkshire Stephen Sondheim with the lyrics. As for Gary, he’s written some incredible songs.” 

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! 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.”

Based on a 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 reflects on why the story, in various incarnations, has endured: “It’s 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.”

The first question Denise asked when she was approached about appearing in Calendar Girls was who else was in the show: “I’m too old and long in the tooth to be dealing with egos and temper tantrums. Thankfully we all get on, but second to the script, that was the most important thing to me.”
The show attracts a hugely diverse audience - so why do the ladies think that is?

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

“And it is a different proposition when you have music to the extent that we have,” says Ruth 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 audiences are in for a real treat. The music makes it a wonderful, emotional journey, but it’s 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’m really on the boil about it!” 

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

Discussing the tour, which takes them all over the UK, Ruth says she’s looking forward to seeing new places and revisiting old friends: “I prefer touring to being in the West End. I like the feel of companies; the family orientation, which harks back to how it was when I started out 60 years ago. The kids and the grandchildren will come in dribs and drabs. I’m a National Trust fan, so we’ll be exploring and will see lots of friends along the way.”

So is Ruth worried about disrobing on stage - does ‘the Great British Take Off’ hold any fears? She waves any concerns aside: “We’ll have great big pineapples or whatever in front of us, so the audience won’t see much.  And besides,” she adds, with a naughty glint in her eye, “at 75, you really don’t care!”

Calendar Girls The Musical visits the Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, from Tues 13 to Sat 17 November.
The show returns to the Midlands region next year, stopping off at Birmingham Hippodrome from 28 May to 8 June.