Keiran Wheelan-Newby produced and directed this musical adaptation of Calendar Girls, based on the 2003 movie of the same name (itself based on a true story). Originally debuting in Leeds in 2015, the musical was created by childhood friends, Gary Barlow and Tim Firth.
The story centres around the Knapely chapter of the Women's Institute, who choose to pose nude for a charity calendar - a clear break from the traditions of jam and Jerusalem. Their goal is to fundraise for a new sofa to go in the cancer ward's waiting room, in memory of Annie's (Alexandra Elliott) late husband.
It's the brainchild of WI rebel, Chris (Siobhan Ball), who rallies the ladies to overcome their insecurities and embrace the idea of stepping outside their - and the institute's - comfort zone. Ball - who does have a look of a young Helen Mirren (who played the role in the film) - is sensational. A vocal powerhouse, she handled several of the show's big numbers with ease, and was note perfect in both music and comedy.
The cast of this production was a who's who of Leicester's amateur theatre scene, with much of the ensemble featuring actors who've played lead roles in other Leicester Drama Society or operatic society productions.
With much of the comedy anchored by Ball, the emotional weight is carried by Alexandra Elliott in the role of Annie. Both Elliott and Andy Longley-Brown (playing her cancer-stricken husband, John) do an excellent job of establishing the happiness of their relationship, so that when John dies, the devastation is real. Elliott portrays Annie's grief with dignity and heartache, and her chemistry with Ball illuminates the characters' close friendship.
It's no exaggeration to say that all the cast were superb, each worthy of individual recognition - but I must highlight a few by name. Jane Towers as Jessie, who's performance of "What Age Expects" defines the show's body positivity. Liz Kavanagh-Knott puts in a show-stealing turn as Celia with the song "So I've had a Little Work Done". Debbie Longley Brown added huge comedy-value to the show as vicar's daughter Cora, taking lead in act one's highlight, "Who Wants a Silent Night?"
The three "kids" were also brilliant. Tim Stokes (already a Little Theatre veteran) brings cheekiness and dance flair to the role of Tommo, Cora's son. Stokes also served as assistant Musical Director - his first time on the creative team.
James King (drama-school bound later this year, and clearly set for big things) is just brilliant as Chris's son Danny, flexing his comedy, dramatic and vocal muscles - his drunk acting alone deserves a gold star from someone.
India Lily Cooper played teenage rebel Jenny, and is clearly another talent with many great performances ahead of her. The character doesn't speak for much of the first act, but when she sings in the second half, Cooper reveals a beautiful voice with an unexpected purity. Hopefully there's more to come from her at The Little Theatre.
Narratively, one of the great strengths of the musical is that it abandons the film's third act (an unnecessary subplot following the girls' post-release fame, in which they go to America and come into conflict with each other). By ending the musical after the calendar's publication, the show is far more uplifting than its cinematic counterpart, and credit to the original creative team for this decision.
The nudity often defines the perception of this musical - and it certainly is an unique element - but it's really not what the show is about. At its heart, Calendar Girls explores grief and defied expectations, while celebrating love, community, and body positivity. The characters go to incredible lengths to show their affection for each other, remember a man they all adored, and bring comfort to his widow.
While I have no trouble believing that a professional production of this show would be enjoyable, this amateur version was elevated to a new height because of the audience. The Little Theatre was sold out, and it felt as though everyone in the room knew at least one person on stage. It created a community atmosphere unlike anything I've ever witnessed in a theatre before. When the time came for the ladies to disrobe, the reaction was so warm, so supportive, so proud. These were our friends on stage, and we were blown away by their confidence, beauty, and performance.
One of the best amateur productions I've ever seen, Calendar Girls was a wonderful experience, further enhanced by the community atmosphere. A credit to the cast, crew, production company and The Little Theatre. Simply joyous.
KW Productions produces a complete musical or revue each year for The Little Theatre stage - keep an eye out for their next offering in 2023.
Next up at The Little Theatre is the LDS production of Scheherezade’s Arabian Nights, running from Monday, June 27 to Saturday, July 2.
Written by Tom Young
Tom is a feature writer for Niche Magazine. He has a degree in Creative Writing and over a decade of experience working in comedy and theatre as the founder of improv group, The Same Faces. He writes about what's on, interesting people, and local events.