Review: Make a date at Sunderland Empire with uplifting Calendar Girls The Musical

From left to right, Rebecca Storm, Fern Britton, Anna-Jane Casey, Sara Crowe, Ruth Madoc, Karen Dunbar and Denise Welch in Calendar Girls The Musical. Note that Ruth Madoc is not scheduled to appear in the Sunderland shows.
From left to right, Rebecca Storm, Fern Britton, Anna-Jane Casey, Sara Crowe, Ruth Madoc, Karen Dunbar and Denise Welch in Calendar Girls The Musical. Note that Ruth Madoc is not scheduled to appear in the Sunderland shows.

The splendour of the Yorkshire Dales may seem a rural world away from Sunderland and its industrial heritage.

Yet there's more to link the famous Calendar Girls tale to Wearside than at first glance.

One of the original members of Rylstone and District Women's Institute (remember the name, it can pop up in quizzes) to strategically strip for charity, Tricia Stewart, is a Sunderland lass.

Fighting cancer, the cause they have since inspired more than £5m in donations for, also unites us all.

But don't fear that Calendar Girls The Musical will have you leaving the Sunderland Empire on a sombre note.

While never forgetting the plot's tragic premise, this touring production is uplifting in more than one sense of the word.

For anyone unfamiliar with the story, it follows pals at a women's institute as they debate whether to pose starkers for a charity calendar in memory of one member's late husband.

Their differing personalities - including the boss, the prude, the flirt and the airhead - mean they could be almost any gang of gals, or lads for that matter, grappling with life's trials together.

The North-East's own Denise Welch (guess which of the above roles she revels in?) gets some of the best one liners.

But the banter - not all which can be repeated in a family newspaper - is shared around with the cast seemingly enjoying the laughs as much as the audience.

As an example, son to mam: "Doesn't Jesus preach tolerance?" Mam to son: "Aye, but I can't remember anything in The Bible which said he had teenage sons."

Credit too, by the way, to understudy Nikki Gerrard for stepping in effortlessly as the institute's branch chairwoman after Fern Britton fell ill.

So now to the naked truth. Do the female fundraisers, erm, reveal all on stage?

Let's say that teamwork and some pretty imaginative use of stage props just about preserves their collective modesty. Well, almost.

That same teamwork was also evident on Tuesday's opening night as the cast invited our own Tricia to join them in taking a bow from the appreciative audience. A lovely touch.

Aided by Take That singer Gary Barlow's catchy score, Calendar Girls The Musical propels you through a lifetime of emotions in little over two-and-a-half hours.

If you haven't already booked tickets for its Empire stay then make a date quick.

The production continues until Saturday,March 23, at 7.30pm with matinees on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 2.30pm.

Tickets cost from £13-£49 (excluding booking fees) and are available from the box office, by ringing 0844 871 3022 or by logging on to www.atgtickets.com/sunderlandempire.