Cast: Lynda Bellingham, Jan Harvey, June Watson, Deena Payne, Sue Holderness, Lisa Riley, Ruth Madoc, Jane Lambert, Joe McGann, John Labanowski, Kevin Sacre, Camilla Dallerup.
Director: Jack Ryder (original production Hamish McColl)
Writer: Tim Firth
Running Time: 130 minutes
Theatre: The Grand Theatre, Leeds
Tim Firth’s play continues its farewell tour and arrives in Yorkshire, home of the original Calendar Girls, to retell the story of how the Women’s’ Institute of Rylstone inadvertently printed one of the most notorious calendars in history.
Adapted from the film, the theatrical interpretation of Calendar Girls locates its activity around the local community centre where the Women’s Institute hold their meetings. When Annie’s husband John is diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, the W.I. rally around to help as best they can. He is first in their group to become seriously ill, so it is a shock when John quickly deteriorates and passes away. From grief and frustration comes the idea for a fundraiser to refurnish the poor seating provided in the local hospital. The concept is a new calendar, featuring the usual W.I. keystones of baking, only the members will be in the nude. As the calendars roll of the press they sell in thousands, attracting world-wide media attention and raising £3m for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research.
There is a particularly brassy, authentically Northern element to Calendar Girls, with a strong patriotism for Yorkshire’s countryside and the warm humour of its people. Community is at the heart of Firth’s script and this is extended into performance, with cast displaying a tangible closeness and intimacy between one another. Concentrating of the effects of illness and loss within such a close-knit community, the writing explores the aftermath of death and how those behind continue their lives. From the loss of John comes the achievement of the Calendar, which is extended in the metaphor of a sunflower rising from a hillside to eventually stare into the sun. Optimistic, wholesome and honest, the story doesn’t shy away from the reality of terminal illness, but rather builds upon the strength of community in times of grief.
The play is directed by Jack Ryder, who previously featured in the original West End run of the show. Ryder’s approach is simple and carefully considered, with naturalistic blocking and simple staging to allow the large cast to emerge as defined, individual characters. The play has perhaps become notorious for its flashes of nudity, which are always carefully handled and meticulously executed with scientific precision. The ingenious blocking and scenic obstructions of the female form are without doubt a great highlight and credit must go to Ryder for devising each ‘reveal’ in a unique moment of spectacle, which is what theatre is all about.
Lynda Bellingham has been with the production since its West End debut in 2009, and her solid realisation of Chris reflects this. Bold, confident and energetic, Bellingham truly is the driving force behind the Calendar Girls and turns in a fuelled performance which is both bombastic, naturalistic and definitive. She is ideally paired with Jan Harvey, who brings further realism to the piece by exuding a rawness of grief with gentle subtlety. June Watson provides a hilarious study in pessimism and prickly bitterness whilst Ruth Madoc is rapturously tickling as the snobbish Marie. Lisa Riley and Deena Payne provide equally engaging performances, though are possibly slightly overshadowed by Sue Holkderness’ sassy Celia, the golf-playing bon vivant whose bodily coverage requires “considerably bigger buns”. Of particular note is Joe McGann, who illustrates his disabling illness through suggestive shits in physical performance. His death, staged mid-sentence and realised simply by breaking character walking off set in low light, is particularly jarring and demonstrates the powerful stagecraft utilised throughout the show.
Boisterously jolly, daring yet tender, Calendar Girls is a beautifully staged production from script to set, lights to performance. It not only respectfully recreates a true story, but honestly presents the brave endeavours of a number of incredible women. In short, it’s a show with heart and humanity and shouldn’t be missed.
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