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Review: Calendar Girls the Musical at Liverpool Empire ****

First it was a real calendar. Then along came Tim Firth who captured the amazing true-life story in a hit screenplay.

He returned to the subject to create an equally successful stage production. And most recently, Firth joined forces with his Frodsham neighbour Gary Barlow to pen a musical version of the terribly sad and yet entirely uplifting tale of a small Yorkshire WI who challenged the Institute’s jam and Jerusalem image to raise funds to fight Lymphoma.

Barlow’s name may come first above the title, but the structure and style of this musical (or is it a play suffused with music?) is classic trademark Firth – the sinuous, at times semi sung-through score emerging seamlessly and organically from the dialogue as it did in his enchanting This Is My Family.

This isn’t an all-singing, all-dancing jazz hands affair full of polished triple threat performers.

Instead it’s a considered, quiet, affecting and empowering piece told on a very human scale, featuring characters who inhabit a world that’s comfortable and familiar to their audience, and against a backdrop that manages to encompass the closeness (claustrophobic closeness at times) of village life but also the vast natural sweep of God’s Own Country.

Robert Jones’ painterly set, with its bleak Wuthering Heights sky and low stone wall, is effectively neat and adaptable – and Oliver Fenwick’s nuanced lighting of that wide Dales sky beautifully echoes and enhances the ever-changing emotional landscape below.

Tim Firth and Gary Barlow with the Calendar Girls

This new touring production does appear to take a while to settle in to its narrative groove.

The first half, which opens with an extended song, Yorkshire - introducing all the characters and their back stories, is a bit of a slow burn and there are times the musical’s quiet nature is almost too quiet for a stage as big as the Empire’s.

But Firth and Barlow’s script creates a harmonious and captivating balance of comedy and tragedy, from the wry alternative seasonal songs sung with dry wit by Karen Dunbar’s single mum Cora and the much-anticipated ‘bigger buns’ moment of the final disrobing, to a carefully-choreographed scene where John Clarke’s incremental declining health is juxtaposed with life carrying on inexorably around him.

Meanwhile it’s not all about the mature WI women and their menfolk - the young cast members enjoy a strong parallel storyline which gives them the chance to showcase some lovely comic talent.

The crack cast (including Liverpool’s Pauline Daniels and Alan Stocks) are simply a joy to watch.

And if you don’t emerge from the theatre with both a lump in your throat and a big smile on your face then you might want to check your own pulse.

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