Make a date in the calendar for a night of nudity and Gary Barlow

Joanna Riding, who plays Cinderella's mother in Into the Woods.
Joanna Riding, who plays Cinderella's mother in Into the Woods.

Award winning Longridge-born actress Joanna Riding is set to reprise her role in the musical ‘The Girls’ in the West End.

The hit show is based on the classic film The Calendar Girls and showcases songs written by Gary Barlow and original screenwriter Tim Firth, retelling the amazing real-life story of a group of Yorkshire women who, as part of the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute and spurred by the death of a friend’s husband, decide to pose nude for a fundraising calendar.

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

Joanna (pictured) plays the role of Annie (Angela) the death of whose husband John from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma inspires the story. She played the part in the musical’s 2015 Leeds debut and again in its 2016 run at the Lowry in Salford.

When asked if she was excited to reprise the role in London in January next year, Joanna answered with a resounding, ‘Yes!’

She explains: “I had hoped all along to do London. The show was such a big success that it was everybody’s dream there would be life after Manchester. It was touch and go at times but I am delighted it worked out.”

Joanna’s involvement with the musical began when producers contacted her three years ago. She says: “The first time I read the script it was still in its infancy, and I came away thinking it was one of the best scripts I had ever read. With musicals, there is a lot of new material that you read that is okay, but not special or unique. This was beautifully written.”

Joanna, along with good friend Claire Moore who plays Annie’s friend Chris in the show, was invited back as production progressed.

The awe-inspiring tale was first told on screen in the hugely popular film starring Dame Helen Mirren, and later in a successful stage adaptation.

The musical has received rave reviews which Joanna partly attributes to the ability of music to transcend everyday emotion.

She says: “The story deals with cancer and death and is a real rollercoaster of emotions. Music both heightens and speeds up these emotions above and beyond which I think makes the medium perfect for this retelling.”

The task of adapting The Girls into a musical was no mean feat. Gary Barlow and co-writer Tim Firth wrote more than 70 songs which were shaped and sculpted into the musical.

Joanna describes both men as extraordinary writers and says: “It may have something to do with them both being Northern boys. There was an alchemy with the music and lyrics which has created something truly magical.”

When asked if she had been nervous about portraying Annie, played by Julie Walters in the film, Joanna is keen to highlight the musical is not simply a copy of the film, but rather a reinterpretation.

She adds: “I adore Julie Walters and couldn’t possibly compare my role with hers, but I think it was important to make a distinction between the musical and the film, which is why is was named ‘The Girls’ instead. The story ends at a different point in the musical and therefore there is definitely more build up and more time to explore each character.”

Joanna is no stranger to musicals having starred in some of theatre’s best known roles, and winning Olivier Awards for playing Julie Jordan in Carousel and Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady.

Her foray into musical theatre started right here in Lancashire when she started singing at the age of six, and later studied drama at Blackpool and the Fylde College.

From there, Joanna says she was fast tracked into showbiz, completely unexpectedly, before going on to perform at the National Theatre.

She is, however, betraying her Lancashire roots to play a Yorkshire lass, but hastens to add, “With a name like Riding I’m sure I’ve got some Yorkshire blood!”

Joanna believes her Longridge upbringing helped prepare her for the role and hails the famous “northern spirit” and “sense of community” as important factors in the extraordinary success of Annie’s story. She says: “In the film, Annie and her husband John were keen walkers, and coming from a family of great walkers myself, this was something I was really able to appreciate. We would often venture through the Peaks and the Lake District as I was growing up.”

Joanna was able to meet with Angela Baker in the run up to the show, the real life protagonist on which her character is based.

Joanna recalls: “Angela was so generous with her time and with what she imparted.It was really important to me to convey the special friendship that Angela had with Tricia (Chris in the musical). Both ladies were extremely close, and that closeness certainly acted as a driving force.”

For Joanna, it was also important to honour the beginnings of Annie’s story and the tragedy which preceded the success.

She says: “I had a picture of Angela’s husband John which I would put up in the dressing room. It was really important to me to remind myself, before every show, who and what this had all been about and to retain that realness. Angela has done some terrific work in raising awareness of leukemia and has made astonishing headway.”

The Girls has played its part in this legacy by raising funds for Bloodwise, the specialist blood cancer charity.

“After the show myself and other members of the cast would run outside to hold collection buckets. It was fantastic to see so many people supporting such a great cause. Even more fantastic was seeing people from back home and recognising faces from Longridge!”

Joanna keeps in contact with her hometown, where her parents and sister Tilly still live, and recently moved away from London with her husband and two children.

“We moved to Rugby to be closer to home. I was concerned that my children were missing out on time with their cousins and grandparents, and London is increasingly becoming a young person’s place. It’s great now that we can be back in Longridge in two hours and enjoy a Sunday roast with the family.”

Joanna’s mother Glenys says she’s delighted her daughter is set to play Annie again. She said: “So many locals who had seen the show in Manchester and Leeds had been hoping it would go to London, so it really is great news.”

Rehearsals for The Girls are set to begin this month, and tickets are now on sale.

“I am really looking forward to it,” adds Joanna. “I still remember the last show at the Lowry - the original girls joined the cast on stage, and then to our surprise, Gary Barlow came out and sang! We were all dancing together. It felt like a surreal dream.”

The Girls opens on January 28 at London’s Phoenix Theatre.