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Brighton Year-Round 2022

Low Down

Band Keyboard/Director Michael James, Keyboard2/Guitar/Electric Guitar/Ukelele John Evans, Cornet/Trumpet Alex Baker, Tombone Doug Logan, Double Bass/Electric Bass Paul Whiteside, Drums Anne Whiteside.

Produced by Andrew Stoner, Directed by Claire Lewis with Musical Direction by Michael James, Choreography by Graham Brown

Lighting Design and Operation Mike Medway, Sound Designer and Operation Ben Lawrance, Martin Coates, Sound effects Richard Lindfield, Head of Wardrobe Viv Aylward, Make Up & Wigs Chris Horlock, Set Design Scenic Projects.

Production Manager Michelle Newton, Vocal Coach Ciru James, Movement Captain Clare Davis, Stage Manager Stephen evans, DSM Allan Cardew, ASM Joseph Hatch.

Till June 25th



Say it with sunflowers. This is the most wonderful sunburst June could give the Theatre Royal Brighton. I’d only pencilled it in, but was told by someone whose judgement rings in bronze: you must see this!

Gary Barlow joins Tim Firth in his play and film (originated by screenwriter Juliette Towhidi) to create Calendar Girls the Musical. Straight off you realise the storyboarding’s tighter, the individual women of the WI given backstories and that dreaded word journey nailed to each memorable number.

And we start with the catchy ‘Yorkshire’ – rarely can any lyric with that name have sounded quite so vivid as Scenic Projects’ Dales scenery lights up after an evocative curtain and we’re in dry stone walls and fold-aways that turn into the pale-green WI interior with a few flicks.

Jim Apted’s sunny, shaded John Clarke narrates what is in effect a gentle valedictory framing of his wife Chris and the world that’s transfigured by his illness. He’s joined by Annie’s husband Rod, who in Steve Emery finds an ideal exponent of a man who didn’t marry for a quiet life. This male framing gives on to a work almost wholly defined by women.

Produced by Andrew Stoner, directed by Claire Lewis with musical direction by Michael James, and choreography by Graham Brown, this is a sovereign production: fully professional it could easily play London. Actors are professional/professional backgrounds, and movement alone’s seamless (movement captain Clare Davis working with Brown). Singing’s uniformly excellent with not a weak vocal or wobble in earshot.

We know the story, and some conflict – the crisis  between leads Annie and Chris – is elided in favour of other confrontations with the local WI Chair: and a refreshing sub-plot of teenage love, slightly but memorably etched on the day I saw it by Nathan Reeve’s eager uncertain Danny and Evie McGuire’s initially disdainful but ultra-practical Jenny (they alternate with James Hoare and Anna Lawson). Children of Tania Newton’s Annie and censorious Kate Peltzer-Dunn’s Marie, they subvert their parents’ hesitations.  James Hoare’s confident Tommo (on other nights Art O’Hara) – egging on Danny, conveys someone taller and more worldly-wise but of course… These thrilling young performers embody both fresh takes and heart-warming pratfalls as they visibly grow during the performances.

The musical’s paced beautifully, and this production takes the time to trace John’s and Emma Edwards’ Chris through their hopes deferred then ended. Edwards has a voice out of the deeps with an edge of grief to it, and she centres the whirl of her vibrant friend Annie (Miss Yorkshire – ‘Highly Commended’!) where Newton powers both plot vocally and as an actor: witty, acerbic, prone to unworkable ideas as her husband points out and finally with one that does. The courage to fail as well as surprise is one of the great messages of this musical.

Newton shows her character Annie’s swerve, when confronted with a family crisis, to resolution when she steps up finally at the WI Conference rushing through the door to speak up where Chris finds it difficult. That’s a highlight of staging as Peltzer-Dunn’s stentorian and clear-voiced Marie looks on appalled from one of the boxes, with her luckless daughter Jenny (who joins the WI because of Annie not her mother, doing the unexpected). Jenny and Danny also leap through doors past aisles and onto the stage full of teen spirit. The whole theatre’s used with the audience enfiladed by flying actors.

There’s a backstory for each of the women. Classical musician and single mum Cora (Hannah Williams) possesses a voice sweeter than the organ she plays, and as mother of Tommo anxiety too. Cockney ex air stewardess-with-enhancements Celia (Amy Marchant) wows with a brazen performance leaping off and singing like a cabaret artist. Anna Atkins, ex-headmistress’ Jessie – the one who tells her ex-pupils to, as older people ‘do the unexpected’ – has a powerful incisive mezzo. And a wicked glint.

Erica Thornton’s shy inhibited Ruth naturally has the greatest transformation and her ‘My Russian friend’ (ode to vodka) is beautifully characterised and melting. Her ‘November’ is a show-stopper of liberation.

Dan Jones as the goodhearted professional photographer Lawrence  is a perfect fit: jocular yet sensitive to his strange privilege. There’s comic work from the two Miss Wilsons with a literally cheeky moment from Helen Schluter and Bob Woodman; Emmie Spencer’s Brenda Hulse the boring lecturer whose projector mysteriously shorts; she’s later the WI president Lady Cravenshire. Bee Mitchell Turner’s WI Tannoy and ensemble. Some of these actors we know from acclaimed lead roles they take elsewhere.

There’s fine work too from Paul Fish as Dennis, Allan Cardew as a fete tannoy voice and Richard Lindfield’s older Colin. The ensemble – some of the smaller characters plus Anita Garai, Clare Carpenter, Karen Hurley, Mike Skinner – are again sterling.

The band, led by Michael James, contribute some evocative solos, right from the start with Alex Baker’s cornet. The strength of this production is its joyous professionalism, its slick stage movement so there’s not a trace of awkwardness, its musicality from voice to instrument, its vocal and actorly characterisation that render so many storylines crystalline, its terrific array of talent from old professionals to the young; who whoop up the future.

In short it’s a heart-stoppingly fine production, amateur only in name, and could be seen in the West End. See it here. Even the sofa’s in bloom.