The Girls Review

Phoenix Theatre Booking to 15 July.  Reviewed by Claire Roderick

Gary Barlow and Tim Firth have struck gold with this delightfully British musical. Based on Firth’s film and play, the addition of Gary Barlow’s music adds extra magic to an already uplifting story.

The story of members of the WI producing a nude calendar to raise funds for a settee in the relative’s room of the local hospital is one that you’d have to have been living under a rock to not know, but the moment when Annie finds out that they have raised enough funds to build an entire hospital wing will still have you welling up. And that’s the wonderful thing about The Girls, one moment you’ll be trying to stop your bottom lip quivering, and the next you’ll be roaring with laughter. This is tragedy mixed with hilarity, with some cracking tunes thrown in.

Setting up all the characters in the first song, the glorious celebratory Yorkshire, the first act deals with John’s diagnosis and treatment for cancer, mixing wonderful comedy set pieces with Annie’s growing realisation that she will lose her husband, as he keeps joking and telling her that everything will be alright. Joanna Riding breaks your heart as she sings Scarborough and Kilimanjaro, both about the challenges of dealing with life alone. John’s death is dealt with beautifully and stylishly, as the cast slowly leave the stage to carry on with their lives, leaving Annie all alone. The sunflower motif is ever-present, and the full impact is felt in the show’s unashamedly emotional finale. Not a dry eye in the house.

Best friend Chris comes up with the idea of a nude calendar, and the second act builds up to the big shoot. The shoot and the nudity are handled with warmth and charm, with a joy that brings huge cheers from the audience at every flash (from the camera!). The subplot involving Chris’ son Danny’s Head Boy campaign and his attempts at romancing Jenny while Tommo gives him awful advice are a lovely touch, showing history repeating as he falls for a girl just like the mother he disapproves of.

The cast are wonderful, with fantastic performances from the calendar models – Michelle Dotrice as Jessie is magnificent – spitting out one liners and belting out the rousing What Age Expects with such feeling and gusto that she nearly brought the house down. And she gets to do the front bottom line! Sophie-Louise Dann is a pneumatically feline Celia – loudly and proudly shaking her stuff in So I’ve Had A Little Work Done. Claire Moore as Chris is fantastic, ending Act 1 with a powerhouse performance of Sunflower, and Claire Machin and Debbie Chazen nail their roles and musical numbers with great comic skill.

The script and lyrics are unashamedly Northern in their humour, bringing all the high emotions and fears back to everyday things that real people would dwell on. Barlow’s music is always catchy, and here it’s as if he has written something for the mums of Take That fans. (Although the younger members of the audience leapt up just as enthusiastically as the rest of us at curtain call.) There are a fair few F-bombs in the script but, sitting surrounded by WI members on a night out, I heard no tutting, just laughter. Yes, this is an all-white vision of Britain, so some may complain, but this show is about celebrating the strength and beauty of women, especially in their last phase “their most glorious”.

The Girls is one of the best British musicals I’ve seen in years. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be humming the songs for days, and you’ll leave the theatre full of warmth and joy. What else could you ask for from a show? Get your ticket now. And take your mother.