And after a trying few years through the cultural desert that was lockdown and following the closure of larger venues including Guild Hall and 53 degrees, the city’s smaller venues are beginning to prove we know how to put on a show.
Preston Musical Comedy Society’s production of Calendar Girls is part of this determined cultural resurgence. Staged at Preston Playhouse Theatre, the show was the first full musical performed by the society in three years and was a complete sellout, boasting standing ovations every night. But why?
The musical, penned by formidable combination of Gary Barlow and Tim Firth and based in Yorkshire, is a story of northern warmth and resilience familiar to a Lancashire crowd. It centres around the women of the WI, all very different, all battling their own demons – they are all of us. And then they do something extraordinary.
If you are familiar with the story, you’ll know it’s based on the true story of Angela Knowles, who lost her husband to cancer and along with her WI colleagues, decided to raise money for Blood Cancer UK by posing for a ‘nude’ calendar. They wanted to raise £5,000 – but managed more than £300,000. The story was turned into a film which grossed £20m and the rest is history.
This remarkable production, starring a cast of super-talented largely local actors and musicians and made possible by a hard-working back-stage team, is full of heart and astonishing in its performance values. Admittedly, I wasn’t the only one who knew someone in the cast but you didn’t need to be partisan to know you were watching a blooming good performance.
From the heart-rending and beautifully sung scenes of emotional resilience from grieving Annie (Kirsty Chapman) to the comedic excellence of the straight-laced Ruth with the secret drink and husband problem (Amy Llewellyn), you are taken on an emotional journey from the entire cast. The subject matters are not fluffy, it touches upon everything from death to domestic violence, from teenage sex to hidden desire – yet somehow they raise the roof with joy. The sheer hilarity and bravery when they whip their clothes off on stage, nude bar some strategically-placed vegetables and pianos. a hilarious joy to behold. Thankyou, from Preston.