Tim Firth

Sheila’s Island


King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Sheila’s Island, directed by Joanna Read, is a reworking of Tim Firth’s 1992 play, Neville’s Island, about a group of middle-managers on an outward bound ‘team-building’ trip. Only two notable things have changed: the protagonists’ gender, and the need to explain why no one has a working phone. The former is dealt with more convincingly than the latter: the women are as rounded and credible as their male counterparts. As for the perennial mobile problem, I’m quite happy to buy the idea that ‘water damage’ has rendered Julie’s unworkable; I’m less convinced that the other women would have acquiesced to a request to hand theirs over to the course organisers. It just seems unnecessarily convoluted. ‘No signal’ would suffice…

The island in question is in the Lake District – Derwentwater – only a mile from the mainland. It’s November 5th, and the women are there because Sheila (Judy Flynn), their team leader, has led them astray, after misreading the first clue on a treasure hunt. They’re stranded because their canoe has sunk. Denise (Abigail Thaw) is particularly miffed, because her rucksack is still in the canoe, but Julie (played tonight by understudy, Tracy Collier) has packed enough for ten, so they’ll probably be okay. Except that Fay (Sara Crowe) is with them… and Fay has a lot of personal issues to work through.

Firth is good at humour, and there are jokes a-plenty in the script, delivered with gusto (and great timing) by the performers. The low-stakes situation is played for laughs: this is a long way from Robinson Crusoe or Lord of the Flies; the women can expect to be rescued within a day or so. Nevertheless, they rapidly descend into disharmony, with petty rivalries sparking heated exchanges, and their ridiculous attempts at bushcraft are genuinely funny.

Where the play fails, for me, is in its attempt to deliver something deeper than the shallow waters at the island’s edge. I don’t believe any subject should be off-limits when it comes to jokes, but neither do I think that issues as serious as nervous breakdowns, suicide attempts and being a long-term carer should be appropriated as asides. The subjects are too weighty for this flimsy tale to bear, and they make the tone uneven. It seems a little tin-eared, if I’m honest.

The set (by Liz Cooke) is a thing of loveliness, with simple, stark lines depicting bare trees, and an inlet of water reflecting Paul Anderson’s gorgeously lit winter sky with all its Bonfire Night fireworks. In the end, though, Sheila’s Island doesn’t quite deliver the “oohs” and “aahs”.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

Calendar Girls the Musical


Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

As the curtains rise at the Festival Theatre, we can’t help but notice that the look of this production has changed considerably since we first saw it in Manchester in January 2015. Back then, Tim Firth’s latest version of this story was known simply as The Girls, and the set comprised a huge heap of lockers, piled higgledy-piggly one on top of another. Now, we find ourselves looking at a rather fabulous Yorkshire landscape, where a stone wall and a gate overlook a surprisingly convincing valley, complete with woodland and a picturesque cottage. At various points, that landscape opens up wider perspectives, as though stretching itself towards new horizons. The script has been worked on too, though it remains unremittingly focused on a small town in Yorkshire and on the close-knit community that lives there. Calendar Girls is, after all, based on real life.

Annie (Anna-Jane Casey)’s husband, John (Phil Corbitt), is suffering from leukaemia. As he goes steadfastly through chemotherapy, assuring his wife that everything will be fine, she relies heavily on her best friend, Chris (Rebecca Storm), and on the local WI, whose meetings are presided over by the officious Marie (Fern Britton, who – despite never having really acted before – is clearly a natural: funny and charismatic in the role). Marie is strictly old school, a  ‘jam and Jerusalem’ diehard who seems intent on keeping her members strictly in line. But, when tragedy inevitably strikes, Chris comes up with a novel way of raising money for a memorial – but how far are the other members of the group prepared to go in order to back her up?

The truth is, we all know exactly how far: the Knapely WI’s nude calendar was an international phenomenon. So there are no surprises here – but that’s really not the point. What we have is a beautifully articulated tale of humanity: of life and death and love and loss, of generations learning to accept each other, and people working together to support one another, through all the trials and tribulations thrown their way.

There’s a real sense here – more signposted than in the previous version – of transience: the seasons’ passing is illustrated by changing light and blossoming trees; there’s a slow recognition that the current crop of teenagers should be allowed their indiscretions, that time will turn them into adults soon enough; they’ll turn out okay, just like their parents have.  It’s a truly heartwarming piece, with community at its core.

The music complements the story perfectly, illuminating the characters’ lives. And it’s memorable too (well, of course it is: if there’s one thing Gary Barlow knows how to do, it’s how to write a hit song). There are melancholy ballads here – the story demands them, and they’re genuinely emotive – but there’s an overwhelmingly upbeat mood to the whole piece, a lively positivity that means we’re smiling through our tears. Not all of the performers are stellar singers, but it’s cleverly cast, so that the most demanding songs are sung by those who really can do them justice, with AJ Casey, Rebecca Storm and Karen Dunbar (Cora, the vicar’s daughter and reluctant organist) all showing they have exactly what it takes. The choral numbers are impressive too.

This is feelgood theatre at its best – and you’re bound to leave the auditorium humming, with the sound of ‘Yorkshire’ in your head.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield


The Girls

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


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