A welcome return to Chester for Tip- Top Productions choosing the Calendar Girls musical as their long awaited debut performance at The Storyhouse.

The musical, created by two Frodsham legends Tim Firth and Gary Barlow is based on the 2003 film and later play by Tim Firth about the true-story of a Yorkshire WI who bravely chose to pose nude for their traditional charity calendar. The idea of an alternative calendar as seen in the musical, was the brain child of WI member Chris (Helen Lacey), after her best-friend’s husband was diagnosed and later died of blood cancer. The initial fund raising target was to enough to purchase a new settee for the family area of the local hospital where John (Bill Robertson) had had his treatment, however that was soon well surpassed.

A clever set design, transports you to a wonderful view of the beautiful Yorkshire Dales. Although this view never alters, clever lighting, a fold-out village hall and hidden stairs, gives height and depth to the production. Imagination is required in some parts for school playgrounds, and flower shop etc. but this is not hard to do with the additional props used.

Directed by Peter Swingler OBE, the founder of Tip Top Productions, the local cast, with Chester newcomer Helen Lacey (Chris) bring this joyful musical to life. They manage to make the audience both laugh and cry with the relatable story of love, and loss from a disease which affects so many families. Although the main theme is the creation of the calendar, the audience can relate to much more. Calendar Girls deals with relationships of all kind, including between teenagers and their parents, first loves and best friends in a humorous and heart-warming way. Moreover the musical shows how we can overcome our fears and self-consciousness especially if we support one-another; or, in Ruth’s case, played wonderfully by Rachel Sumner, with a bit of Dutch courage (‘My Russian Friend and I’). Memorable parts include Cora’s (Sandra Jones) alternative versions of classic Christmas songs, culminating in the rousing ‘Who wants a Silent night’ which had the audience clapping along; and Annie’s (Clare Thompson) heartfelt ‘Kilimanjaro’ about coping with daily realities after loss. The musical ends with the creation of the calendar, where clever props allow for the nude scenes to take place in a tasteful and fun way that has the audience applauding, almost encouraging the characters as they also laugh and support one another which made this even more heartwarming.

The cast deserved the standing ovation at the end, for a joyous evening of celebrating life, love,  community spirit and friendship.

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