Prepare to be emotionally ruined. I saw “The Girls” last night and sobbed and laughed all the way through it – sometimes both at the same time. It’s a wonderful show but oh, so heart-rending.
I’ll put some context to this before I begin. I went to see it with Bob and you may remember that Bob and I did a crazy, cold-water stunt some years back in aid of what was then called Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, now Bloodwise. I won’t go in with the full heart-rending story behind that stunt but trust me, storylines involving father figures dying of blood cancer? Oof. It packs a punch.
So it was always going to be a tearful one and the stage show really wrings out the drama in a way that, I’m told, the film doesn’t. There are shifts from comedy to poignancy and back again as Annie and Clarkey try to carry on life as normal while dealing with his diagnosis, positive progress and decline into not-so-positive progress. There are still cakes to be baked, WI meetings to be attended and seedlings to plant and the action deftly spins between life-and-death and everyday for the duration of the first act. The naked calendar isn’t even mentioned until just before the interval, so there’s a real focus on establishing the characters and their complicated lives – lonely Ruth, who doesn’t want anyone to know about her problems, prissy incomer Marie, the effervescent Chris, ever clinging on to her former glory as a highly commended “Miss Yorkshire” and in the centre of it all, the relationship between Annie and Clarkey which seems so simple until cancer comes along. Joanna Riding and James Gaddas do a superb job of combining big emotions with Northern understatement and very British kind of groundless optimism – “everything will be alright”. Annie worries about who’ll reach the towels on the top shelf and help her sort out the duvet and whether it’s any point continuing to cook bacon joints for tea when it’s just her to eat them. Do you see why I was crying yet?
As strong as the main characters are, this is very much an ensemble piece. There are a substantial number of characters, with the ladies of the WI carrying the show, backed by their husbands and stroppy teenage children. The husbands don’t get a huge amount of character development but the teenagers have their own interlaced storyline, with Chloe May Jackson modelling a great line in side-eye as feisty Jenny and Ben Hunter looking the spit of a young Jason Segel as the puppyish Danny. But it’s not all about the young folks – it’s the older women who are the stars here, way before they strip off.
It’s unusual to see a show with so many great parts for women in midlife and later, especially one which celebrates the female form in all its variety. One of my favourites was single mum and choir mistress Cora, who early on discards the Dickensian carol sheet to bust out a jazzy “Who Wants a Silent Night?”, complete with a dance routine that SwingTrain would be proud of. I was really pleased to meet Claire Machin, who played Cora, at the end as the cast were out collecting for Bloodwise. We took a selfie together and you can really see what a state I was in after two full hours of crying:
Oh my poor eyes. And my poor head this morning after Bob and I polished off a bottle and a half of Rose. Did you know you can buy a bottle at the beginning of a show, take plastic cups in with you and get the rest of the bottle, chilled, at the interval? I do now.
Anyway, back to the show itself and I know you want to know about the nudity. Yes, of course there was nudity. It’s kinda “The Girls” USP. But it’s all very tastefully done and you see, as retired headmistress Jessie says, “no front bottoms”. Talking of Jessie, I can’t believe I didn’t recognise Michele Dotrice. I watched “Some Mothers Do Ave Em” loads as a kid…how did I not recognise Betty? As Frank would say, whoopsie. In my defence, there was a lot going on onstage – the set that served as both village hall and hilly dale, the sunrises, sunsets and stars and yes, the nudity. With outlandishly sized novelty props, of course.
A quick word for the score – I’ve never been a Take That fan but that Gary Barlow can certainly crank out a tune. Opener “Yorkshire” is still stuck in my head today, although I feel a little teary every time I sing it. Other songs were less immediate but all fitted the characters well, with the aforementioned Jessie belting out a diatribe against age discrimination and Sophie-Louise Dann as Celia flaunting her assets in “So I’ve Had a Little Work Done”. The songs ranged from joyous to heartbreaking – often in the same few minutes – and there were some lovely arrangements. Look here if you want to see what I mean. I believe there were even some Woodfordian Natural Voices in there towards the end.
I have a few nitpicks. One of the Miss Wilsons seemed to be way too young and beautiful for the role, which is disappointing in a show that casts women to their age in a realistic way. Also, there was no resolution to the Marie thread – one minute she was frothing about the calendar at the National Conference, next she was cheerfully joining in the finale. And lastly, there seemed to be only about six calendar girls – who posed for the other months? Is it just me who worries about these things?
But these are minor gripes. It was a beautiful production and if you want a show that rips your heart to bits and then kinda gums it back together with some female empowerment, then “The Girls” is for you. Just try not to sob too loudly.