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A CurtainUp London London Review
Calendar Girls

I'd run round Skipton Market naked, smeared in plum jam, wearing nothing but a knitted tea cosy on me head and singing "Jerusalem".— Chris
Calendar Girls
Gaynor Faye as Celia, Patricia Hodge as Annie, Sian Phillips as Jessie, Lynda Bellingham as Chris, Elaine C Smith as Cora and Julia Hills as Ruth
(Photo: John Swannell)
I thought the film Calendar Girls starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters about a group of Yorkshire women over 50s who contributed to a fund raising calendar posing nude was charming. Trading on that success for the film which captured the imagination of middle aged women throughout the UK, comes a stage comedy. The play had taken an incredible £1.7 million in advance box office last week and unusually did not have an official press night. The planned opening of Monday 20th April was instead a fund raising gala for the cancer charity the original women had supported.

This stage production opened in Chichester in the autumn of 2008 and toured for a few months round regional theatres. While the audience was celebrating this tribute to the guts of older women being prepared to bare all for charity, the rest of us were wondering how they would get away with nudity on stage, seen not just from an camera angle which can be edited but from a wide range of viewpoints in the auditorium. Of course the staging raises that interesting issue, despite the charitable gala performance, the actors taking their clothes off are not charity workers!

The play is almost dominated by the audience, women outnumbering men by 12 to 1 as groups of women have organized themselves to see and support Calendar Girls. They are there to have a good time and the laughter is pretty raucous as the jokes from the film are replayed. The traditional image of the organization that these rural women belonged to is the Women's Institute which represents sobriety, home making values, crafts and jam making, church and choir and the members were more usually seen in twinset, pearls and tweed skirts and most unlikely to expose themselves in public, even for charity. Think Margaret Thatcher as a Playboy centrefold! Only six of the Yorkshire women agreed to sell their story, the other five chose anonymity after taking part in the photography. There were eleven models for each month of the Year 2000 Calendar with Miss December being a group photograph of them all. The story I'd like to hear is why the other five dissenters declined to take their new career any further.

The background to this calendar, which has been widely imitated with nude calendars of everyone from librarians, musicians to firemen,was the death of the husband of one of the original women from lymphona at the age of 54. They intended to buy a new sofa for the hospital cancer ward visitors' room. Patricia Hodge plays Annie, wife and later widow, to the saintly John (Gary Lilburn) and Lynda Bellingham is florist Chris, the risk taker of the group. Brigit Forsyth is Marie, the straitlaced woman in charge of the WI who is horrified at the project. Cora (Elaine C Smith) is the plump pianist, Gaynor Faye is Celia the vamp, Julia Hills is Ruth, Marie's nervous sidekick and Siān Phillips plays Jessie the retired school mistress who reminds the photographer Lawrence (Carl Prekopp) that he was once in her infants class but maybe hasn't recognized her without her clothes on!

The end of act one sees some clever use of those large circular flash reflecting screens used by photographers, a table cloth, a crocheted blanket and some other magic type props to decorously conceal the actors unclothed from the audience, whilst allowing the photographer to get his shot. But this is the pinnacle of the play. Tim Firth, the writer, decided not to take the women to Los Angeles as the film did but there is a disastrous outing to an advertiser (again Carl Prekopp) where he wants the women to strip off to promote a washing powder, and a minor falling out between Chris and Annie. And there is a scene of great sentiment as letters fall from those who have lost someone to lymphona and write to the Calendar Girls to share their thoughts.

Why was I not thrilled with the stage play? Because there is nothing creative about the retelling of Calendar Girls, it is predictable, formulaic and much as they will be happy that the audience are laughing, nothing for the actors to work with and these are women actors of the first order. It is interesting to compare the original photographs with today's cast. The beautiful monochrome images of the real grey or white haired women tell you why this calendar was groundbreaking. Compare these with the publicity shots for the staging of rather glamorous women. Calendar Girls seems to be selling as fast the calendar which sold out in 38 minutes and is proving both recession and critic proof!

Calendar Girls
Written by Tim Firth
Directed by Hamish McColl

Starring: Lynda Bellingham , Patricia Hodge, Siān Phillips, Gaynor Faye, Brigit Forsyth
With: Elaine C Smith, Julia Hills, Joan Blackham, Gary Lilburn, Gerard McDermott, Carl Prekopp, Abby Francis
Design: Robert Jones
Costume Design: Emma Williams
Lighting: Malcolm Rippeth
Sound: John Leonard
Music: Steve Parry
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0844 482 5141
Booking to 19 September 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 16th April 2009 performance at the Noel Coward, St Martins Lane, London WC2 (Tube: Leicester Square)

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