As Lesley Joseph and Lisa Maxwell join Rebecca Storm in Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s musical Calendar Girls, Vicky Edwards catches up with the two ‘bare naked ladies’ to find out if touring in this sell-out show, which comes to Bristol Hippodrome from Calendar Girls The Musical, which comes to The Bristol Hippodrome from July 9-20. is as fun as it is draughty…
Everyone knows the story: twenty years ago the women of Rylstone WI posed for a cheeky calendar to raise funds for a sofa at their local hospital – the hospital where Angela Baker’s husband John had his life cruelly cut short by Leukaemia. Over 5 million pounds later (and with post-performance collections for the charity Bloodwise still boosting that total as effectively as a Wonderbra) the calendar has taken its genteel subjects all over the world and spawned a film, a stage play and, most recently, a critically acclaimed musical.
“These women did something spectacular,” marvels Rebecca Storm who plays Chris and who not only grew up a stone’s throw from Rylstone, but has another coincidental link to the production.
“David Pugh [Calendar Girls producer] was my first ever producer! In 1984 he gave me my first opportunity in the world of proper grown-up theatre in Blood Brothers.” she says, smiling fondly at the memory.
Lisa Maxwell, best known for starring in The Bill and as a panellist on TVs Loose Women, also recalls her first memory of the show, which was from an audience perspective.
“I cried when they bought the sofa on. I have never cried at a sofa in my life!” she declared.
“Everything about this show appealed to me. The songs are beautiful, Gary’s music is wonderful and Tim’s lyric’s and script are brilliant.”
That said, she admits that the idea of getting her kit off was, initially, more than just a tad daunting.
“The poster photoshoot was absolutely terrifying! The ladies were all very supportive and reassuring, but for me it was crossing a big psychological line.”
Laughing, she adds: “But it was better than doing it for the first time in front of an audience. Being naked on stage is the actor’s nightmare and yet here we are whipping it all off! It is a big thing to do but it also feels good to be in my 50s and celebrating my body being healthy.”
“We’re not prancing around like we’re in Hair!” interjects a smiling Rebecca. “And it’s done with so much comedy.”
Beloved for her role as Dorien in the smash-hit TV show Birds of Feather, Lesley Joseph nods and points out that the show is not only funny but also inspiring and life-affirming.
“The story is very ingrained in me and I’ve done the play twice before, although this is my first time in the musical. It has endured because it is an extraordinary story about women who did something iconic.
“People identify with that and they love its message of hope. Audiences feel moved and uplifted. It’s not a typical musical, but it definitely has broad appeal. People need escapism. They love the story, and of course Gary’s songs are knockout.
“You also get to see the impact the calendar had on the families much more in the musical version; the husbands and the kids, so there is more to relate to.”
For Lisa going on tour is almost as much of a novelty as getting her kit off in front of an audience.
“I didn’t tour for years because I wanted to be around for my daughter as she was growing up, but a couple of years ago I did a short tour playing Judy Garland, which personally felt like the best thing I have ever done. It gave me newfound confidence and that’s when I fell in love with singing again. And then this came up.
“It’s a dream job; being on the road with other women the same age and with a great show going to lovely theatres.”
Rebecca, who has been touring with the production since last year, has already established a routine for living out of a suitcase.
“My husband is the bass player in the show and he and I travel with our King Charles Cavalier. We pack the slow cooker too!”
And while they have a busy performance schedule there is, Lesley insists, plenty of time to be a tourist along the way, as they take Calendar Girls to theatres in towns and cities all over the UK.
“I love to see a place and find out what’s there. Friday is usually a day to go and look at stately homes, go shopping, visit tea rooms or to catch up with friends.”
Talking of friends, during the recent filming of a BBC TV documentary Lesley had the rare privilege of making friends with someone very special: his holiness Pope Francis.
“We had half an hour in private conversation with him at the Vatican. It was extraordinary.”
In between giggles she tells me how she was so overwhelmed at the prospect of being in the presence of ecclesiastical royalty that when they were introduced she found herself babbling.
“I only needed to tell him my name and what I did, but I ended up doing a whole monologue, including the fact that I was 72. When he said that I didn’t look it I replied by saying “Oh bless you!” I blessed the Pope!” she exclaims, dissolving once more into laughter.
Friendship is, of course, at the heart of Calendar Girls, which could be described as the ultimate girl power musical.
“It absolutely is,” agrees Lisa.
“It’s a celebration of real women who are flawed but who try their best. They are a community and they came together to do something amazing. Community is so powerful. Calendar Girls doesn’t tell you anything that isn’t under your nose already, but it holds a mirror up to it.
“I live in a village now and when we first moved from London community life it took some getting used to. But it was the best thing we ever did; people look out for each other and help each other. Being part of a community is like being given a hug.”
Which, I observe, is much the same feeling you get from the show; you leave the theatre feeling like you have been enveloped in a huge cuddle, having laughed, counted your blessings and shed a few tears to boot.
“Some of the songs are so beautiful and I cry just reading the lyrics on the page,” sighs Lisa.
“Thank God I’m the one singing about having big comedy knockers!”
Revelling in the reaction the musical prompts, the trio claim that the audience response at the curtain call is always amazing.
Does it give them a shot in the arm, I query?
“Yes, or like a big old vitamin B12 jab in the bum,” laughs Lisa.
Calendar Girls The Musical plays The Bristol Hippodrome from July 9-20 Visit www.atgtickets.com/venues/bristol-hippodrome/ for details