Calendar Girls - The Musical

Date 11th June 2022
Society The Preston Musical Comedy Society
Venue Preston Playhouse
Type of Production Musical
Director Jane Tudor
Musical Director Ed Rugman
Choreographer Gemma Burns
Producer Hannah Bates
Written By Gary Barlow and Tim Firth

Report

Author: Nathan Benson

Thank you so much to Preston musical comedy society for inviting my guest and hosting us so fabulously to the Preston Playhouse to watch Calendar Girls the musical on Saturday the 12th of June 2022. This so was an wonderful piece of theatre from start to finish, across all the disciplines associated with musical theatre. My major take aways from this show was the feeling of humility and togetherness. Every single person who was a part of this show deserves to be applauded for their efforts, just as the full standing audience ovation gave at this performance. 

One of the best things for me about this production, was that it is hard to define the boundaries of the performance art disciplines. The production was so seamlessly integrated it was difficult to define the parameters to describe the direction, musical direction and the choreography. You can tell this production was produced in a collaborative manner, so thank you so much to Jane Tudor, Ed Rugman and Gemma Burns for bringing this production to life in such a dynamic way. 

With the above, apologies if I misplace the ownership of any of the following. The direction gave us a fully believable set of characters, all realistic and grounded, with equal levels of character development, all individual and robust. There were a couple of moments specifically that Jane challenged my judgement, and I truly thank her for this. During the first act, the platforms for staging (description to follow) were only notably used during the opening number. Part way through the first Act, I got my red pen out to comment on potential use of staging opportunities. The next time the platforms were used in the production was during the scene where John, a lovable warming character, sadly passes of cancer. In this scene Jane had him walk his way across the stage, amongst the rest of the cast, and then making his way up the stairs of the construction to the top level, where he stood alone. There was a beam of white light glowing. At this point I realised that barely using the staging up to this point was a conscious decision, and I could not have agreed with that choice more. A very lovely touch and creative way to make this moment stand out. The second instance I swallowed my own thoughts was during the Women’s Institute Conference where the fourth wall broken and some of the cast started their scene at the back of the auditorium amongst the audience. As I am a little OCD around consistency and continuity, throwing curve balls into a show like this put me at ill ease. As the scene unfolded, the focus was diverted back to the stage where two of two of the characters were about to deliver some incredible messaging about of the horridness of cancer and its impact on us all. Having some of the action in the scene happening behind the audience was a very clever way of involving us directly as participants at the WI meeting, so we were no longer voyeurs to a show, adding to the message's poignancy. And that is the Verfremdungseffekt. 

Ed’s musical direction delivered us a strong, well-rehearsed score with complex rythmicality and harmony with a blended and balanced orchestration. There was great integration with the characterisations of each of the calendar girls, each having their own individual sound and style. I absolutely loved the arrangements of ‘Sunflower’, working with Jo Duckworth’s ability to flick between sustained belt, head-voice and vibrato and with great crescendo, this was superbly worked. My guest did comment that some of the wording to the songs lost diction and verbal comprehension, I personally was so absorbed in the emotion, I didn’t notice this at all.  

Gemma's choreography naturally blended in with the direction. It appeared that every number, be it dancing or not, was cleverly choreographed and staged. There was wonderful use of assorted styles of movement to coincide with the individual characterisations. I particularly liked the choreographic style of ‘So I’ve had a little work done’ blending show dance and pedestrianised movement, excellently delivered by Lyndsey Pilkington. Gemma created some great chorus numbers in unison and in split sections, and I really liked the additions of partner work and lifts. There we some lovely moment where Danny and Tommo had moments of physical theatre, I did wonder if these could have included elements of repetition or motifs to make them more cohesive, this is not a criticism, just an after thought 

Praise needs to be awarded to the set, crew, and props teams. A scaffolded rig was built upstage, with three tiers of levels, and stairs way leading up them. The scaffolding was fronted by enormous flats cut to the shape of, and painted to be hill in the Yorkshire Dales, where this play is set. There was a thrust built downstage right which housed Annie and John’s little area, and throughout the production, various bits of set were brought on and off the stage to create various backdrops, often highlighting the characterisations of The Girls. The properties and the setting were all detailed, and consistent with the setting and style of the show I loved the box of 'Yorkshire Tea'  making a few special appearances throughout the show. Nice touch! Another lovely touch to the show was having the stage crew dressed as if they were characters within the show, rather than the traditional theatre blacks. This kept the magic and energy of the production alive with fluidity and minimal interruption between scenes. I also loved the use of fly in bunting during some of the festive scenes. 

Technical was provided by Sam Robinson on lighting and Dave Pallant on sound. The tech added some magical moments within the production. There was a white backdrop at the back of the stage, behind the mountains which was flooded with differing colours and hues throughout the show, often rich and warming and then contrasted some atmospheric tones, which coincided with the journey of the narrative. The use of repetition and symbolism with the blue backlight beams against smoke to represent John’s presence and spirit was such a nice addition. Wardrobe was fronted by Janet Radcliff who successfully kitted each of the characters with authentic costumes. I loved the Christmas jumper scheme, it looked so vibrant. 

All the cast delivered an impeccable ensemble performance. At all times it felt like there was a genuine rapport between the cast and it seemed utterly convincing that they knew each other their whole lives within the small Yorkshire village. The full ensemble delivered everything they needed to, with energy and smiles for the uplifting numbers and with intent and resonance for the darker numbers in the show. 

The male partners of the Calendar Girls were played by a strong cast with Mark Kendle as Denis, Eddie Regan as Colin, James Moss as Lawrence, Dan Haresnape as Rod and Mark Howard as John. The comradeship between these gents was notable. I think if this bond was not there, the impact of and the reactions to John’s death wound not have been so sincere. Really well delivered guys. 

The three teenagers Danny, Jenny and Tommy were played by Ronan Pilkington, Eleanor Jolliffe and Jack Barratt, respectively. Again, there was great chemistry between these three, These the lads of these 3 offered the audience some great comical relief throughout the production, which was really refreshing. Eleanor did an excellent job at creating depth and substance for Jenny’s character, I really enjoyed her vocal ability and tone as well, a grounded and mature interpretation of a teenage role. She ought to be proud. Ronan’s performance was on fire from start to finish. He played the role with such charisma. It was a little hammy in places, but that was believable he had the audience on his side, laughing at and with him throughout. There was a lovely chemistry between Danny and Jenny, well done Ronan, this was remarkable.

The Calendar Girls, firstly I would like to thank each of them for delivering to such a consistently high standard.  As noted throughout, each had strong, quirky individual characterisations, each with depth and substance. They each were utterly relatable. Sharon Hartley played Marie, the Leader of town’s woman’s institute. Sharon has great presents in this role and delivered some strong comedic moments throughout.  Amy Llewellyn played Ruth, a hopeless in love and covers it up with vodka kind of gal. There were some food moments of light and shade within her performance, I really enjoyed the development of the squeaky laugh within the show, Was a nice touch. Lynsey Pilkington delivered Celia, the sassy one of the groups, with finesse to spare. As noted above, Lynsey was En-pointe in her featured song, which also gave her a chance to show off her incredible vocal range and tones. Gail Carter played the more senior member of the group, Jessie. Gail commanded this role; her solo number was a showstopper and some of the one liner she delivered were in impeccable comic time. Miranda Rutherford played the music loving family woman, Cara. Again, a remarkable performance, great moments of comedy and her voice is the higher register blew me away. Jo Duckworth played Chris, the rule breaking yet award-winning cake faker, wife to Rod, mother of Danny, best friend, and confidante to Annie. There are many hats that Jo had to wear to deliver this role and deliver she certainly did. As noted above, her vocals in ‘Sunflower’ were so skilled and dynamic, but to add to this, the emotion and genuineness of this with made the hairs on my arms stand up. Her performance was consistent, well timed, and honest. Jo should be really pleased with her work. Last but by no means least. Annie was by Kirsty Chapman, who delivered an exceptional performance though out the show. I would say Annie has the biggest character journey throughout the show, dealing with the Cancer diagnosis of John, her partner, then the treatment and his demise in health, and then the aftermath of his passing. Kirsty delivered all these emotions with truth and honesty, dealing with subtext in her work though ‘putting on the brave face’; this was encompassed within her speeches, musical numbers, and embodied physicality. At moments, the lighting allowed us to peer deep through her eyes and into her soul. Kirsty was truly living in this character's moment throughout the production.