By Hilary Porter

A great success as a play and a film, Calendar Girls has received a musical makeover following a five-year collaboration between original writer Tim Firth and Take That star Gary Barlow.

It opened for a two-week run in Southampton last night following an earlier tour and West End run- and Tim Firth was there himself still scrutinising and overseeing his work from the back of the theatre.

The show is, of course, inspired by the true story of a group of ladies who decide to appear nude for a Women’s Institute calendar in order to raise funds to buy a settee for their local hospital, in memory of one of their husbands. To date they have raised almost £5million for Bloodwise.

The musical is about love, loss, growing old and overcoming adversity. It covers issues of cancer, grief, marriage and rebellious hormonal children. At its core - and central to its success, are the strong female characters who drive the story along, played so brilliantly by an outstanding cast.

It stars Fern Britton, Anna-Jane Casey, Sara Crowe, Karen Dunbar, Ruth Madoc, Rebecca Storm and Denise Welch- all utterly believable and a joy to watch.

Whether the play benefits from the musical embellishments and some additions to the story is open to debate. It may have slowed down the pace and rhythm of the original script, drowned out some comedy and the first half of the show did seem over-long. However, the plodding first half does capture the leisurely pace of the sleepy Yorkshire Village and WI world of jam making, knitting and mundane speeches. And this sets things up nicely for the riotous, laugh out loud comedy in act 2 and hilarious naked calendar shoot which was just brilliant!

Overall the music was not what I had expected - these are not catchy hit songs you will sing on your way home. But there are some good songs, such as when Annie (the brilliant Anna-Jane Casey) is accompanying her husband John to hospital appointments. First she is hopeful and optimistic but this gradually fades away and the poignant Very Slightly Almost, with its echoes of the late Victoria Wood, is all about missing even those trips -and arguments, at Tesco's. I also loved the defiant, anti-ageing 'What Age Expects' and the bravado of 'I've Had a Little Work Done'.

Perfectly balancing comedy and pathos, the show explores the grief widowed Annie feels but is uplifting and funny, with unforgettable lines like “You’ll need considerably bigger buns”, and in keeping with the humour at the expense of women getting older: "Before you sail a yacht, try a tugboat" a line between school friends Tommo (Tyler Dobbs) and Danny (Danny Howker) laughing at the flirtatious middle-aged Celia (the fabulous Denise Welch).

Hi-de-Hi legend Ruth Madoc demonstrates her famously wonderful comic timing as retired teacher Jessie, and I loved Coronation Street star Denise Welch as the self-deprecating, surgically-enhanced Celia.Television presenter Fern Britton proves an all-round talented performer too.

Calendar Girls the Musical is at Mayflower Theatre until January 19.