Per­form­ing Arts

Michael Billing­ton thinks that York­shire has a lot to teach New York when it comes to mu­si­cals

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Edited by Jane Watkins

Michael Billing­ton sings the praises of mu­si­cals with heart

How of­ten does this hap­pen? Twice in one week, I saw new mu­si­cals set in York­shire and show­ing peo­ple de­fy­ing sex­ual con­ven­tion. But —and here’s the rub—both evenings ended with the real-life in­spi­ra­tions for the shows com­ing on stage and em­brac­ing the ac­tors. Never have I seen art and life so closely in­ter­twined.

In the case of The Girls at Lon­don’s Phoenix The­atre, the ladies from Ryl­stone and Dis­trict women’s In­sti­tute, who once fa­mously posed for a nude cal­en­dar, ap­peared decked with sun­flow­ers to en­dorse this heart­warm­ing mu­si­cal.

The first night of Ev­ery­body’s Talk­ing About Jamie at the Sh­effield Cru­cible ended with the be­frocked Jamie Camp­bell com­ing on stage in tears to ap­plaud this lightly fic­tion­alised ac­count of his de­sire to wear a dress. Even though the show has now fin­ished, I make no apol­ogy for writ­ing about it as it’s cer­tain to have a longer life (if you want to hear more, you can buy the sound­track al­bum at www. sheffieldthe­atres.co.uk).

If I pre­ferred The Girls, it’s be­cause its op­ti­mism is hard won and be­cause it shows the many ob­sta­cles the wi ladies had to over­come to achieve their ends.

You might as­sume that, by now, the sub­ject would have been ex­hausted. First, there was the 2003’s Cal­en­dar Girls, star­ring Julie wal­ters, and five years later came a pop­u­lar stage play. Ev­ery­one must know the story of how a group of York­shire wi women bravely posed in the nude for a cal­en­dar to raise money for char­ity fol­low­ing the death of the hus­band of one of their mem­bers. Their ef­forts paid off as an as­ton­ish­ing £5 mil­lion has been do­nated to Leukaemia Re­search.

How­ever, the mu­si­cal ver­sion of the tale, writ­ten by Gary Bar­low and Tim Firth, beats the film and the play hands down be­cause it’s far bet­ter struc­tured and be­cause it suggests the story is one of tri­umph over self-doubt and un­der­stand­able in­hi­bi­tion.

The key fig­ures in the story are Chris, a cheer­ful soul who first comes up with the idea of the cal­en­dar, and An­nie, who is bereft at the loss of her hus­band. whereas in the film, the cal­en­dar shoot comes at the start and in the play half­way through, in the mu­si­cal, it’s the cli­max of the evening. That mat­ters hugely. It not only gives the show a rous­ing fi­nale, it also con­firms that this brave ges­ture is im­por­tant, in dif­fer­ent ways for each of the women. For

An­nie, it’s a way of cop­ing with her grief; for the oth­ers, it’s a means of deal­ing with age, de­pres­sion or self-con­scious­ness.

The mu­si­cal also works beau­ti­fully as a por­trait of an English vil­lage. It starts with a choral num­ber, York­shire, about the ap­par­ently un­chang­ing na­ture of life in the Dales. By the end, ev­ery­thing has been over­turned through the ac­tion of the women.

In Mr Firth’s pro­duc­tion, they are also played with­out a hint of con­de­scen­sion or car­i­ca­ture. Joanna Rid­ing is very touch­ing as the sto­ical An­nie, Claire Moore ra­di­ates good-heart­ed­ness as the en­ter­pris­ing Chris and there is first-rate sup­port from Claire Machin as a re­source­ful sin­gle par­ent, Deb­bie Chazen as a lonely vodka-swiller and So­phie-louise Dann as a golf-club Delilah. Do see it.

I’d be the first to ad­mit that

Ev­ery­body’s Talk­ing About Jamie had a sim­i­lar ef­fect on its au­di­ence and is an un­de­ni­ably feel-good show. Based on a 2011 BBC doc­u­men­tary, it’s the story of a 16-year-old school­boy—orig­i­nally from Durham, but now from Sh­effield—who en­joys wear­ing tow­er­ing plat­form shoes and who de­ter­mines to go to the school prom in a dress. He has long been dis­owned by his ab­sen­tee fa­ther and meets some to­ken op­po­si­tion from a teacher. In the end, he wins out, loy­ally sup­ported by his mother, his friends and a lo­cal cos­tu­mier, who was once a cel­e­brated drag queen. The songs by Dan Gille­spie Sells are first-rate and he writes es­pe­cially well for the fe­male voice: Josie Walker as Jamie’s mum de­liv­ers two big num­bers with a raw power that would slay them in Carnegie Hall and Lucie Short­house as a de­vout Mus­lim who learns to em­brace her fem­i­nin­ity also knows how to put a song across.

John Mc­crea cap­tures all of Jamie’s pride in be­ing true to his own in­stincts. What is lack­ing from Tom Macrae’s book, how­ever, is any real sense of drama, but that didn’t de­ter the Sh­effield au­di­ence who sent the show off in a blaze of glory that suggests we’ll be talk­ing about Jamie for some time to come.

If peo­ple go to mu­si­cals seek­ing af­fir­ma­tion and joy, they will be hard-pressed to find them in

The Wild Party. This is an Amer­i­can show, dat­ing from 2000, that has been cho­sen to open The Other Palace: a rechris­tened ver­sion of the St James’s The­atre that An­drew Lloyd Web­ber has ac­quired as a venue for try­ing out new mu­si­cals. It seems per­verse, there­fore, to open with an old one that sig­nally failed to set Broad­way alight.

It’s based on a once no­to­ri­ous 1928 poem by Joseph Mon­cure March that de­scribes the dirty deeds that take place at a raff­ish show­biz rout. The poem it­self has a rhyming swag­ger, but the mu­si­cal, with book, mu­sic and lyrics by Michael John Lachiusa, is a dark, gloomy af­fair that be­comes mo­not­o­nous in its por­trait of hec­tic de­prav­ity.

Frances Ruf­felle shines as the party’s vaudevil­lian host and John Owen-jones ra­di­ates thug­gish men­ace as her lover, but this is one party I’d be happy to miss.

‘The Girls’ runs un­til April 22 (0844 871 7627); ‘Ev­ery­body’s Talk­ing About Jamie’ closed on Fe­bru­ary 25; ‘The Wild Party’ runs un­til April 1 (0844 264 2121)

The bare ne­ces­si­ties: the WI ladies of The Girls rally round An­nie (Joanna Rid­ing, cen­tre) in a show that will make you smile

The Wild Party boasts good per­for­mances, but is noth­ing to cel­e­brate

Dress code: Ev­ery­body’s Talk­ing About Jamie was a feel­good hit for Sh­effield

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