The Calendar Girls story has been told so many times now that the cynics amongst us might believe that it doesn’t need to be retold. Already a film and a play by Tim Firth, a new musical version, The Girls, penned by Firth and Gary Barlow – childhood friends – recently opened at the Phoenix Theatre, having been tried out up North in Manchester and Leeds. Yet this story about 12 members of the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute who made a nude calendar for charity which became a national hit is perfect for the musical form. This well-crafted new musical (directed by Firth) enables us to see characters having thoughts and considering situations in a way we haven’t seen before in previous versions of the same story. It all adds up to an emotional rollercoaster of a show.

The Girls is led by two of the West End’s most experienced ‘Northern’ actresses, Joanna Riding and Claire Moore. Riding brings both reality and sincerity to the part of Annie, the lady who loses her husband John (James Gaddas) to cancer. Riding runs the emotional gammit and is always stoical in the face of whatever life brings. The scenes between Riding and Gaddas planting shrubs are particularly touching, planning future growth at a time when John’s life is sadly drawing to a close.

Claire Moore is an excellent contrast as Annie’s best friend Chris. Chris is the type of woman who thinks nothing of passing off an M&S Victoria sandwich as her own in a baking competition in one hilarious scene. A florist by trade, Chris’ sense of fun makes it difficult for her to set a mature example to her teenage son Danny (Ben Hunter) who wants to be head boy at school, while gradually falling for Jenny (Chloe May Jackson). Jenny is daughter of Marie, the conventional WI leader who wants her ladies to make cakes and jam.

Musically, The Girls is innovative yet accessible – and parts of songs are mixed and matched to suit the characters and situations with few conventional showstoppers. The score is fresh and suits the narrative of a show about [extra]ordinary people and their lives. Opening number ‘Yorkshire’ sets the scene perfectly, while single mum and church organist Cora (a delightful Claire Machin)’s take-off Christmas number, ‘Who Wants A Silent Night’ is a real treat. Former air hostess Celia (the hilarious Sophie-Louise Dann) – who doesn’t fit in amongst the ladies of the golf club – also has a great comedy number, ‘So I’ve Had A Little Work Done’.

Elsewhere, Michele Dotrice’s Jessie proves that age is just a number, while Debbie Chazen’s Ruth breaks free from a failing relationship. In a show containing universal themes of independence, setting an example, trying to raise money for the better good, the girls give themselves and each other a confidence and a zest for life – and the much-anticipated nude calendar photo shoot is staged with style and much humour.

Rarely for the Olivier Awards, the six lead actresses have been jointly nominated for Best Actress in a Musical – and it’s fabulous to see mature talent leading a brand new show in the West End. Barlow and Firth’s new musical is surely the most moving, yet life-affirming and inspiring show in the West End.