The Girls

Theatre Bouquets 2016

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We’ve been lucky enough to see some amazing theatre again in 2016. Here, in order of viewing (and with the benefit of hindsight), are our favourite productions of the year.

Hangmen – Wyndham’s Theatre, London

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An excellent start to the year’s theatrical viewing, Martin McDonagh’s play was absolutely superb: funny, frightening and thought-provoking with an outstanding central performance by David Morrissey.

The Girls – The Lowry, Salford

Gary Barlow, Tim Firth and the original Calendar Girls credit Matt Crockett

This was the biggest surprise of the year for us: on paper, it sounded a million miles away from the sort of thing we usually enjoy, and we went along reluctantly. But it was a truly delightful production – flawlessly realised.

The Merry Wives – The Lowry, Salford

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Northern Broadsides version of The Merry Wives of Windsor was a rambunctious, irreverent take on the tale, with the inimitable Barrie Rutter clearly relishing the role of Falstaff.

I Am Thomas – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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A strange and eclectic production, telling the tale of Thomas Aikenhead, the last person in Scotland to be hanged for blasphemy, this was essentially a series of vignettes and musical interludes, with an ensemble taking turns to play the eponymous role.

King Lear – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

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Michael Buffong’s King Lear was a tour de force, a gimmick-free yet undeniably modern production. Don Warrington was well-cast in the central role, but it was Pepter Lunkuse’s Cordelia who really stood out for us. She’s definitely one to watch!

Stowaway – Home, Manchester

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Analogue Theatre’s troubling tale of a stowaway falling from a flying aeroplane and landing in the car park of a DIY store was fascinating, depicting a moment where worlds collide and understandings begin to take root. A thought-provoking, political play.

Royal Vauxhall – Underbelly Med Quad, Edinburgh

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A quirky and irreverent musical, telling the true story of when Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett dressed Princess Diana in drag and took her to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London for a night out, incognito. We loved this production.

Wonderman – Underbelly Potterrow, Edinburgh

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Based on the short stories of Roald Dahl – and incorporating a true incident from his eventful life – Gagglebabble’s collaboration with the National Theatre of Wales was a sprightly mix of drama and music with a deliciously dark heart.

Cracked Tiles – Spotlites, Edinburgh

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This beautifully crafted monologue, written and performed by Lorenzo Novani, was the downbeat tale of a young man who inherits a Glasgow fish and chip shop from his father Aldo. Novani was quite staggering as Riccardo.

Dear Home Office – Underbelly Med Quad, Edinburgh

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This was the story of unaccompanied minors applying for asylum in the UK, performed with touching vulnerability by eight refugee boys. The play was an amalgamation of the performers’ own experiences, blended with fictional accounts. A raw and truthful exposé.

The Suppliant Women – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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It’s a rare thing indeed when you go into a theatre and are treated to something unique – but that is the word that kept coming to us, as we sat entranced in the stalls of The Lyceum, watching David Greig’s production of The Suppliant Women. Truly brilliant.

Grain in the Blood – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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A real one-off, this was a stark, unnerving chiller, at once contemporary and classical, with dialogue that was taut and ultra-modern in style, all fragments and silences and unfinished thoughts. This was a complex, angular, unwieldy play – a fascinating watch.

Jack and the Beanstalk – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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By far the best panto we have ever seen, this was a standout production, with fantastic performances from King’s Theatre regulars Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott. It brought the year to a celebratory end.

Susan Singfield

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The Girls

Gary Barlow, Tim Firth and the original Calendar Girls credit Matt Crockett

19/01/15

The Lowry, Salford Quays

I’ll be honest. I didn’t have high expectations for this. After all, I thought, Calendar Girls had already been a hit film and a successful stage play. The news that author Tim Firth had spent the last couple of years turning it into a musical with his friend, Gary Barlow, suggested that this particular idea had been taken just about as far as it could possibly go. So I’m surprised and delighted to say that The Girls, from its jaunty opening chords onwards, is an unqualified delight, a production that has the word ‘hit’ written all over it. Nor is it the kind of cheesy nonsense that often qualifies a show for such a description.

It’s a  very familiar true life story – how a group of Women’s Institute members in an obscure Yorkshire town, decided to raise money for a local cancer hospital by appearing in a nude calendar. But Firth has opened up the story to give it a wider scope and the wry, witty lyrics seem to have so much to say about the everyday life of ordinary people that you can’t help admiring them. This show surprised me. I hadn’t expected to laugh as hard as I did, nor had I expected to cry quite so much – there are moments here that will wring tears from the coolest people in the audience.

It’s an ensemble piece with an eighteen strong cast, all of whom deliver faultless performances. The main story focuses on the friendship between Annie (Joanna Riding) and Chris (Claire Moore), but every character has a story arc and each one is fully explored. If I have an issue, it’s with the title – the six lead protagonists aren’t ‘girls’ at all but mature women; and when was the last time you saw a musical that offered major roles to so many of them? Roles, more importantly, that treat their subjects with respect even when the women are stripping off for charity. The nudity, by the way, is handled with consummate skill, so it never feels exploitive – you are laughing with the women, not at them and that’s an important distinction.

A word too about Robert Jones’s ingenious set design. What appears at first to be haphazard heaps of painted cupboards and lockers becomes a whole variety of locations, including the hill that overlooks the village of Cracoe where the story is set and, in one memorable driving sequence, the outline of a city at night.

Gary Barlow knows a thing or two about writing a decent pop tune and here’s the proof that he can write show tunes too – you’ll most likely come out of the Lowry humming, whistling or singing one of them. The real life ‘Calendar Girls’ were in the audience for tonight’s performance and I’d say they must have been delighted with the latest incarnation of their remarkable story. Indeed, if this show doesn’t get a West End transfer soon, then I’ll be very surprised. For once, an enthusiastic standing ovation was thoroughly deserved.

Who saw that coming?

5 stars

Philip Caveney