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BWW Review: THE GIRLS, Phoenix Theatre

Tim Firth can't keep away from the Calendar Girls. Following the 2003 film and 2008 play, he's back again adapting the real-life story of Yorkshire WI heroines stripping off for a charity calendar after one of their number loses her husband to cancer. This time, it's a musical adaptation with Gary Barlow.

British musicals haven't had an easy time of it of late, but this one might well have staying power - arguably because it sticks firmly to the middle of the road; this is not a show that's about to change the face of theatre.

The story is told with heartfelt simplicity, the piano and brass band-inflected music is gently pleasant, and the lyrics down-to-earth, specific and cheeky - though lacking real Victoria Wood-esque irreverence and startling wit. Barlow does have an unfortunate liking for clichéd analogy; if I never see another musical using mountain-climbing metaphors, I will die happy.

It's an astute dramatic choice to make the calendar shoot - and immortal line "We're going to need considerably bigger buns" - the big climax (rather than placing it halfway through, as the film does), and it shifts focus to the minutiae of the women's lives and reckoning with wild pasts. Single mum Cora admits her son is the product of a tryst with a bass guitarist; well-endowed former air hostess Celia feels judged by the censorious ladies at the golf club; Jessie is frustrated that age has changed people's treatment of her; and the model student son of rebellious Chris challenges the hypocrisy of her parenting.

However, there are times when it feels like the show is spinning its wheels until the big reveal - especially in the choppy first half - and a teen subplot is painted in broad brushstrokes: earnest head boy meets sexpot bad girl, plus a tone-deaf comic runner about sexual grooming. Still, there's wry commentary on the generational gulf, and a warm conclusion that there's more that unites than divides us.

Warmth is really the key word here. There's little in the way of true conflict, with even the would-be villain - officious WI head Marie, who initially bans the calendar - joining the ranks of well-meaning people doing their best. That's certainly not a deal-breaker, but it does dampen the dramatic tension, and John and widow Annie teeter on the verge of outright sainthood.

The latter's grief is nevertheless delicately played by Joanna Riding, who keeps two candid ballads rooted in everyday experience. Elsewhere, the songs can tend towards the fuzzy and bombastic, but Riding imbues the pain of giving away a loved one's belongings or taking on marital routines solo with a quiet, devastating truth.

Claire Moore's plucky Chris is an enjoyable contrast, and there are wonderful performances all round from the lead cast of older women - a group traditionally underserved by theatre. Michele Dotrice mounts a vigorous attack on casual ageism, Claire Machin hilariously sells Cora's musical rebellion on the village green, and Debbie Chazen makes timid Ruth's path to independence endearing.

Perhaps the pick of the bunch is the majestic Sophie-Louise Dann, bringing serious va-va-voom to "So I've Had A Little Work Done" - a number joining "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" in the niche Paean to Plastic Surgery genre. Meanwhile Ben Hunter is excruciatingly believable as pompous but sexually inexperienced teen Danny, Steve Giles sweet as the hospital porter/photographer unfairly judged because of his tattoos, and a kindly James Gaddas makes us feel the loss of John.

Given the recent Half a Sixpence furore, it's worth noting this is another oh-so-white show, and one with distinctly mixed messages: cheering female empowerment while championing objectification and old-fashioned marital values; praising new initiatives while sighing over an unchanging, idyllic time warp; and preaching empathy, but only within narrow, Brexit-y parameters.

Still, it's a charming portrait of community, well marshalled by Firth (also taking on directing duties), and Robert Jones's appealing set combines rolling green hills with kitchen cabinets - domestic and natural harmony. Sentimental and cosy, yes, but it's hard to deny its triumphant spirit and glorious ensemble power. And with producers last night announcing an extension to July, it's clear theatregoers are returning its affectionate embrace.

The Girls currently booking at Phoenix Theatre until 15 July. Book tickets here

Read our interview with Claire Machin

Photo credit: Matt Crockett

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