Actress Joanna strips it all back for new musical

Joanna Riding, right, meets Angela Baker - the original Calendar Girl who inspired the character Annie who she plays in the new The Girls musical
Joanna Riding, right, meets Angela Baker - the original Calendar Girl who inspired the character Annie who she plays in the new The Girls musical
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She’s a Lancashire lass betraying her roots to tell a classic, contemporary tale of Yorkshire women.

But that’s okay by actress Joanna Riding, who’s starring in the new musical re-telling of classic Brit flick Calendar Girls.

Clockwise Gary Barlow, Tim Firth, Karen West, Vivien Parry, Harriet Thorpe, Shirley Jameson, Claire Moore, Sara Kestelman, Debbie Chazen, Claire Machin and Joanna Riding in The Girls

Clockwise Gary Barlow, Tim Firth, Karen West, Vivien Parry, Harriet Thorpe, Shirley Jameson, Claire Moore, Sara Kestelman, Debbie Chazen, Claire Machin and Joanna Riding in The Girls

The Girls, as the new stage version is called, has been reworked by the original screenwriter Tim Firth, with music by Take That star Gary Barlow and still tells the story of the Yorkshire Women’s Institute members inspired by the death of a friend’s husband to bare all for a fund-raising calendar.

Joanna is certainly a red rose through and through, having been born in Longridge, attending Penwortham Girls’ High School in Preston and going on to Blackpool and The Fylde College to start her acting career.

But she hopes some distant family ties may save her in front of the Yorkshire audiences when The Girls has its world premiere at Leeds Grand Theatre on Saturday, November 14.

“Yes, it’s the wrong colour of rose, but it’s okay,” she said. “My granddad used to have this thing about Yorkshire, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him he has a very Yorkshire surname in Riding, somewhere the family must date back to the Ridings,” she laughed.

Joanna Riding and fellow The Girls actress Claire Moore in rehearsals for the new musical

Joanna Riding and fellow The Girls actress Claire Moore in rehearsals for the new musical

It was at Penwortham that double Olivier Award-winning Joanna ‘had a go’ at singing, before going on to Blackpool and The Fylde College in St Annes for two years, where she made a start in drama.

She’s gone on to play some of musical theatre’s best known and loved female roles, in the West End and at the National Theatre, including Sally in Me And My Girl, Julie Jordan in Carousel - winning the Olivier in 1993, Sarah Brown in Guys And Dolls and Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady, her second Olivier-winning role, in 2003, as well as numerous heralded roles in straight theatre, and last year she appeared as Cinderella’s Mother in the film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods.

Of her time at college in St Annes, Joanna said: “I have slightly wild memories of leaving a strict girls’ school with uniform and a strict headmistress, to go to a college that was full of boys, no uniform and the drama set.

“I didn’t spend much time in the library, let’s put it that way.

Joanna Riding as Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady, for which she won an Olivier Award in 2003

Joanna Riding as Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady, for which she won an Olivier Award in 2003

“Blackpool was always part of our life, growing up too, with dad taking us to the Illuminations and the Pleasure Beach.”

In The Girls, which will come nearer to home at Salford’s The Lowry theatre for three weeks from January 8, Joanna is to play Annie, the character ‘loosely’ based on Angela Baker - and played by Julie Walters in the film - whose husband John’s death from non-Hodgkins lymphoma sets the wheels in motion.

Joanna, who has been involved with the production for around 18 months, from its workshop phase, said: “I was approached way, way back and loved it from day one, and made it very clear I would like to keep working on it if they would like me.

“It’s changed very much during that time, but I’m lucky as I was a little bit more familiar with it than many were when we started rehearsals.

Joanna Riding as Sarah Brown and Clarke Peters in Guys & Dolls back in 1995

Joanna Riding as Sarah Brown and Clarke Peters in Guys & Dolls back in 1995

“We’ve had the film and the stage play, but this is very much a re-telling. It’s a story we all know, of the Calendar Girls, but to make it work musically they have changed the shape of it, and we get to know more of their families.

“John is the catalyst but there is more time given to him in this, but the fact it’s a retelling is reflected in the fact it’s called The Girls not Calendar Girls.”

During the development of the musical, the team came back to Burnsall Village Hall, near Skipton - the village where the women’s story began back in 1999.

And all the Girls were there, with their families to see the progress so far.

Joanna said the visit was when the production took the leap from being a reading to a ‘proper little production with a stage and set, and it just got bigger as the days went by’.

“No one knows the story like those ladies and it was very important to have their approval, but having met them, we needn’t have feared their reaction,” she added.

“Little did they know 20 years later, they would have raised millions, and this show continues to raise money for the cause too.

“I met Angela, and she is a lovely woman. There’s a responsibility obviously, to these real women, but I think Tim Firth has been clever in ‘loosely’ basing the characters on them.

“I asked Angela how she felt about people knowing her, but it’s easy for her to step back from it, she said.

“Getting the essence of their friendships right is more important than copying them as people,” she added. “Annie and Tricia [Chris in the film, played by Helen Mirren] are two strong women, with a very long standing friendship and closeness. And it’s important Claire, [Moore, playing Chris] and I get that right.”

The Girls is very much a northern tale, the Rylstone Women’s Institute women whose story is told have real Yorkshire grit, while Tim Firth and Gary Barlow also hail from the region, with Joanna hoping that audiences will give it a warm reception.

“It’s wonderful to be launching in the North, in Yorkshire. Tickets are selling fast, which is thrilling to know,”

“I think it will be well supported, people know it as a story of ‘their’ girls.

“Having been involved for so long, it’s great to think we are actually there, doing it, now.

“And it’s almost home for me. Certainly when we’re at The Lowry, I may just come home for a bit from there - I haven’t been to Manchester, performing, since being in an Ideal Husband at the Royal Exchange [in 2007].”

But she’s not short of support for her largely London and West End-based work, her parents Alan and Glenys ‘get the coach down’ to see her on stage, although most of her family are still based in Longridge itself.

Her eldest sister Tilly Carefoot meanwhile now runs the family cheese firm Singletons Dairy, responsible for Grandma Singletons Lancashire cheeses.

It may be almost 30 years since she left Lancashire for the bright lights, via Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, but her fondness for the county is evident.

“As I get older, and my children Louis and Skye, who are six and eight, get older, I miss it more and more,” she said.

“I don’t want to bring my children up not knowing their cousins.

“I do sometimes dally with the idea of coming back north for a while and having a small pad in London.

“Last time I went up, I had such a lovely time seeing my sisters, mum and dad and friends.

“It’s always going to be home though; it’s in your blood and a part of you sighs when you get there.”

Her French husband Seb, an engineer, is also keen, but he does point out the famous Lancashire rain, so she says, rallying his complaints by explaining that’s what keeps the county so green.

But seeing as they met in Preston and had their first date in Blackpool, he should be fairly accustomed to the weather.

“We went roller blading on the Golden Mile like two big kids,” Joanna added. “He was the one showing off as a very skillful rollerblader, but I was thinking ‘Hmmm hmmm’ when he was doing it.

“He had been working in Preston for two years when we met, so his English was very good. Every so often he comes out with a very Preston accent though.

“He’s a very keen cyclist and fell in love with the area too, so apart from the rain he wouldn’t have a problem living in Lancashire.”