First night review: Why we love The Girls

Gary Barlow at the press night performance of 'The Girls' at the Grand Theatre, Leeds.  Picture by Bruce Rollinson
Gary Barlow at the press night performance of 'The Girls' at the Grand Theatre, Leeds. Picture by Bruce Rollinson
  • The Girls (musical), Leeds Grand Theatre: Five stars
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The news is: it works and then some. This musical has been baking for several years now and on Tuesday night it received a worthy, and lengthy, standing ovation at its world premiere - and that was before co-writer Gary Barlow joined the cast on stage.

It’s a cliche to say that a show can make you laugh and cry, but The Girls does both in abundance. Speaking of which, it is one hell of a bun dance that pulls off the coup de theatre inherent in this story - the moment the robes come off and the nude calendar is created. It is a masterful, hilarious, poignant and even powerful piece of physical theatre that creates various naked tableaux that have the audience cheering along.

READ MORE: Stars turn out for VIP night production of The Girls

The Girls is the musical written by Tim Firth and Barlow, based on the story of the women of the Rylstone Women’s Institute who took their kit off for a calendar and raised millions of pounds and created a legacy which has raised millions of smiles since Firth turned their story first into a film and then into a stage play.

One of the biggest new theatre show openings seen in Yorkshire for some time, the anticipation around this show is something I have seen rarely in my 15 years reviewing for the Yorkshire Post. Last night we found out why.

This most Yorkshire of stories is bound to travel far outside the county. I’d bet my flat cap that this show will be booked into theatres in London and around the world - the stage play went to Australia, I’m certain this will do the same. Over a decade ago I bet in these pages that a musical called Bat Boy would go to the West End. It did, but it failed. It was a great show, but it couldn’t find an audience. This show, which will follow Bat Boy into the West End, has an audience ready made: women of a certain age are the UK’s biggest buyers of theatre tickets. When they buy tickets to see this, they will see their own lives reflected back at them.

Christine Talbot and Sheron Boyle at the press night performance of 'The Girls' at the Grand Theatre, Leeds.  Picture by Bruce Rollinson

Christine Talbot and Sheron Boyle at the press night performance of 'The Girls' at the Grand Theatre, Leeds. Picture by Bruce Rollinson

What about the rest of us?

That was always going to be the issue. Will a story so rooted in Yorkshire travel outside the county? Will a story about middle aged women appeal to audiences outside that bracket?

The reason the answer to both questions is yes, is because Tim Firth is a master craftsman.

A cast as large as this means you have to display enormous finesse to move each character away from caricature. With the thinnest slivers of script, Firth brings us a woman who has turned to alcohol to cope with a runaway husband, a teacher who has been rendered invisible by the creeping years and a WI president whose whole life is a facade. Those individual stories are mere bit parts to the heart of this musical, which is ultimately a story of friendship and triumph over adversity.

Gary Barlow at the press night performance of 'The Girls' at the Grand Theatre, Leeds.  Picture by Bruce Rollinson

Gary Barlow at the press night performance of 'The Girls' at the Grand Theatre, Leeds. Picture by Bruce Rollinson

Holding the strands together, the spine of this story, is the friendship of Annie and Chris. Joanna Riding as Annie and Claire Moore as Chris, absolutely inhabit their roles. That they look, not for even the briefest of moments, like they are acting, is as big a compliment as I can pay.

And what roles. It is their friendship that is largely responsible for the tears here.

The music? Gary Barlow knows how to write a tune. Interestingly here, his music occasionally feels incidental, complementary to Firth’s script as opposed to overpowering it. When it does grab the attention, it really grabs the attention. The swing inspired Who Wants a Silent Night? and the surprisingly moving What age Expects join So I’ve Had A Little Work Done in a perfect demonstration of why this musical will do so well.

All three songs bring to mind another female dominated story: Chicago, rendered particularly vividly in the imagination when Vivien Parry as Celia strides across the village hall chairs admitting she’s ‘Had a Little Work Done’.

Gary Barlow at the press night performance of 'The Girls' at the Grand Theatre, Leeds.  Picture by Bruce Rollinson

Gary Barlow at the press night performance of 'The Girls' at the Grand Theatre, Leeds. Picture by Bruce Rollinson

I’m not saying Firth and Barlow are Kander and Ebb yet, but in creating a new musical with this much heart and not a little soul, they have done something that will last a long time.

Space is at a premium: the set is spectacular - a reason on its own to see the show; the direction, by Roger Haines vigorous and full of energy and the young cast members - well, three young stars are born in this musical.

It’s going to give us yet another reason to be proud of Yorkshire.

• To December 12.

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