CALENDAR Girls began life as a 1998 news story, then a phenomenon, then a film and then a play.

But Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s musical version still manages to have a freshness to it, helped by a hugely talented cast.

Although true to the original spirit of the real-life events, Firth admits he has changed around 90 per cent of the story.

Wisely, the story of the W.I. members has been opened out to bring in more from the male characters, and there’s a sub-plot involving a couple of teenagers (likeably played by Danny Howker and Isabel Caswell).

These additional dimensions result in a more complex and satisfying plot – a real bonus when the original story is so well-known.

Anna-Jane Casey as Annie, whose husband dies of cancer, was wonderfully appealing and expertly navigated and conveyed the changing emotions her character underwent. Anyone whose loved one’s lives have been touched by cancer will empathise with her song, Very Slightly Almost.

There was brilliant chemistry between her and her larky, sarcky best friend Chris (Rebecca Storm who should rightly be regarded as her co-star due to her fantastically engaging performance).

They received excellent support from their fellow WI’ers. Fern Britton, Sara Crowe, Karen Dunbar, Ruth Madoc and Denise Welch all shone superbly, gradually revealing their own character’s story. Generously, Barlow gave each of them a solo song which provided additional insights into what made them tick.

The delightful Sara Crowe, whose character was controlled by a sinister-sounding husband, sang “My Russian Friend and I” to a bottle of vodka. It hinted at darkness, and Crowe gave it admirable pathos, but the audience, perhaps determined to have a good time, found it comical.

The simple set – a dry stone wall against a backdrop of rolling dales – provided atmosphere without distracting and was sufficient to indicate time and place.

Free of sentimentality, and with humour to be found even in some of the darker moments, this is an accessible and highly enjoyable production.

Its feelgood values are a perfect tonic for a dark autumn night and Tuesday’s opening night earned a cheering, standing ovation – and that was even before the surprise appearance of real-life Calendar Girls were brought on stage at the end.

Calendar Girls the Musical runs until Saturday, November 10