Review: Calendar Girls at Darlington Hippodrome

Review: Calendar Girls at Darlington Hippodrome

Calendar Girls – Darlington Hippodrome

21st November 2023

The first thing that struck me on entering the packed auditorium this evening at Darlington Hippodrome, was the good-natured atmosphere of the audience. This was a crowd that was ready to be thoroughly entertained with a delightful story and I do not believe that anyone left disappointed. 

Calendar Girls is a musical by Gary Barlow and Tim Firth, based on the latter’s film from 2003 which tells the true story of a chapter of the Women’s Institute who decide to produce a nude calendar to raise money for a well-known cancer charity following the death of the much-loved husband of one of the aforementioned Women’s Institute members.

This musical version with words and music by Take That front man, Gary Barlow, loses none of the heart of the film and retains all of the humour and pathos which is a credit to the writing team and the actors who are portraying some very memorable characters. 

The set which mainly depicts the village hall in which Knapely Women’s institute meets and is quite beautiful in its design. Various indicators fly in or are brought on to indicate when we are not in the village hall and the lighting design, Nick Ritchings, is subtle and effective. 

This is a pared down production to others I have seen and relies on some very strong characterisation from the ladies and the two husbands central to the story. All of the ladies put in incredible performances that lovingly nod to but do not imitate the much-admired and star-studded film on which this musical is based. 

There is not one character on this stage that is not likeable and are portrayed with sensitivity by all the actors. There is no underlying men versus women trope which is commonly wheeled out in modern narratives. This is a story of real people living real lives in the real world and it tugs on the heart strings but ultimately leaves a warming glow as the audience leaves the theatre.

The adorable marriage of Annie (Tanya Franks) and the ill-fated John (Colin R Campbell) is a relationship that many aspire to and the fondness between the two of them and the obvious admiration of these two delightful charactersemanates from the stage. Maureen Nolan puts in a stellar performance as divorcee and functioning alcoholic Ruth and a special mention for Jayne Ashley who stepped up from ensemble to take the role of Cora for tonight’s performance. 

The music never feels out of place and the opening number which introduces all the characters very cleverly intertwines the Women’s Institute’s anthem ‘Jerusalem’ and is a joy. The band led by local lads Jordan Alexander and Tim Jasper as Musical Director and Assistant Musical Director respectively is wonderful from the opening to the closing chord. There were a couple of issues with sound this evening where microphones failed or dropped out occasionally but this did not detract from a wonderful performance by everyone involved.

The direction by Jonathan O’Boyle was necessarily carefully arranged especially in the photo shoot in the second half which had the audience in fits of laughter as through January to December the ladies took centre stage. I did find the first half a little slow to get going and somewhat laboured but the production as a whole trips along and all the elements an aficionado of the original film would want are present with some getting rapturous applause as they appeared.

On a cold November evening you could not go wrong with getting along to the wonderful Darlington Hippodrome to have your cockles thoroughly warmed by this delightful tale of love, camaraderie, and togetherness in the face of adversity and I have no hesitation to recommend this gorgeous production but I would make sure you have a good supply of hankies. 

Calendar Girls plays at Darlington Hippodrome until Saturday 25th November. Do not miss it!

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