Review – The Girls, Phoenix Theatre

Wednesday 17 May 2017

Saggy, baggy, in need of trimming and tightening up and decidedly over-exposed.

No we’re not talking about the women d’ un certain age disrobing on stage. As if we would be so unkind. We’re talking about the show.

Having been underwhelmed by Tim Firth‘s Calendar Girls both on film (2003) and even more so on stage (2008), Phil had given his latest musical version, rebranded (rather clumsily) as The Girls, a very wide berth indeed.

Then out trotted the five-star reviews from newspapers (about 8 of them) which suggested he was missing something. In fact one threw down the bold gauntlet of promise that it would make him “cry with laughter”.

The inspiring story is well-known. A Yorkshire Women’s Institute member Annie (Joanna Riding) loses her husband John (James Gaddas), to leukaemia. She’s persuaded by another member Chris (Claire Moore), to raise money to buy a new sofa for the hospital in memory of John and cajoles fellow members to strip off tastefully for a girlie calendar of sorts. Ultimately raising a ton of money (millions to date), starting a new trend for charity calendars and becoming an international media sensation in the process.

It’s the theatrical equivalent of reusing old tea bags. Though Firth, who also directs, has restructured things; the show more or less climaxes with the photoshoot and we only get a hint of the sensation the calendar is to become. Ending with a group of Yorkshire women stripping off (and there’s more flesh on display than you might expect, with a high nipple count) is both the best and worst decision. The best because it’s the funniest moment in the show, a well-choreographed set-piece with the obligatory buns/jams/sewing/flowers etc almost concealing their modesties and the worst because what comes before it is like a damp plod over the Yorkshire dales. The calendar doesn’t get a mention until the end of Act 1.

Did we mention it’s set in Yorkshire? We’re reminded of it so often you’ll be craving a Yorkie bar. It even opens with the cloying dale-hugging anthem “Yorkshire” which must have the Yorkshire Tourist Board (who appear to be sponsors) swooning. If only Phil had alleviated his boredom by doing a word count of how many times “Yorkshire” is mentioned. There hasn’t been so much locative laying it on with a trowel since Sadiq Khan’s mayoral campaign plugged his humble origins in a council flat (where he hopefully wore cor blimey trousers too).

The women in the cast give it their all and some. As well as (Yorkshire East) Riding and (Yorkshire) Moore there’s Claire Machin, Debbie Chazen, Sophie-Louise Dann, and Michele Dotrice. Each get their alloted turn to sing a number to establish some sort of character trait covering, among other things, grief, loneliness, betrayal and cosmetic surgery.

There’s not actually that many songs though it seems as if there are as it’s very reprise-heavy. And considering they come from Gary Barlow (lyrics by Firth), apart from the song “Dare”, you’d expect more than one to build to something that’s catchy or memorable. Despite being repeated throughout the evening the chances of most of them sticking in Phil’s mind were as likely as under-cooked spaghetti sticking to his kitchen wall.

Still, every number was backed by impressive percussion; not from the band but from the sweetie bag-fumblers. The Phoenix is of course an ATG venue which operates the wretched guaranteed-to-drive-away-regular-theatregoers scheme Ordertorium. ATG, if you weren’t aware, stands for Arrrgh, Toffee Guzzlers. If you want to nip this madness in the bud now we suggest you boycott the service. And since we’re in Yorkshire, that would be a Geoff boycott, naturally.

Machin puts plenty of gusto into “Who Wants a Silent Night?” causing health and safety concerns by dancing on top of van decked out for Christmas as the rest of the cast swan around in Dickensian costumes. Act 1 obviously needed a big number. Chazen sings a plaintive lament to a vodka bottle and the wonderful Dotrice is saddled with the worst number of the night “What Age Expects” while Dann’s ex-air hostess character’s “So I’ve had a Little Work Done” was the only number that made us laugh (especially a reference to overhead lockers).

And, as much as we enjoyed Dann’s* cougarish character, seeing her flutter her eyelashes and flaunt her cleavage at one of the other WI member’s schoolboy son is dubious to say the least. Imagine if the genders were reversed?

The mundanity of everyday life is celebrated; trouble is Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett did it so very much better. There are enough references to a nostalgic womens’ world of Victoria sponges, margarine, tea-making, plum jam, Tesco, knitting etc it would surely make Theresa May glow. Designer Robert Jones reveals Yorkshire as a hill of kitchen cupboards which open to suggest other locations. And even though it eventually becomes quite dull to look at it certainly provides more wit than the script which rarely rises above mediocre sit com material. There’s some nonsense about acting like the colour of your heart rather than the colour of your hair. Whatever that means.

Very good performances from all the leading lasses – it is impossible not to applaud their chutzpah. There’s nowt that stripping and a strong cuppa can’t cure don’t you know. Its desperation to be loveable made resistance quite easy. The whole enterprise feels like a dog (Yorkshire terrier no doubt) rolling over and wanting its tummy tickled.

Phil is reluctant to be one of the shows knockers – there’s enough on display anyway – since it’s still raising money for the charity Bloodwise. The coach-parties – especially if they come down from YORKSHIRE – will love it. Is it worth bothering to mention it received the now obligatory standing ovation?

The am-dramsters will no doubt be right chuffed to get their hands on the rights when they become available. Expect it to do well when it tours. Especially in Bristol.

We didn’t cry. We barely laughed. We were a right pair of mardy bums.

Phil though it needed considerably bigger gags.

*Dann’s stage husband is played by Jeremy Clyde, who was something of a pop sensation in the sixties, particularly America, as part of the pop duo Chad & Jeremy. They appeared on The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Patty Duke Show and as themselves in episodes of Batman where Julie Newmar’s Catwoman set out to steal the duos’ voices. Mad as that sounds…

Yorkshire pud rating

3 Responses to “Review – The Girls, Phoenix Theatre”

  1. Have you seen Miss Nightingale at The Vaults? Try to catch it. It closes 20th may. I think you might like it… xx

  2. Sal Says:

    Thus review is thematic perfection – why doesn’t some intelligent producer pay the Whinger(s) to write the book for a musical? – the result would surely be better than this soggy bottom of a stage extravaganza –

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