Civic Players have a hit on their hands! Their production of ‘Calendar Girls’ is a delightful, exuberant romp that leaves the audience richly entertained – and more than a little impressed. It should, by rights, have a longer run than just five performances – and if there aren’t queues through the car park of those hoping for ticket returns and ‘no shows’ before it closes, it’s unjust.
The play follows the real-life story of a group of Women’s Institute members who, led by the indomitable Chris and her friend Annie, decide to raise money for a new settee for the local hospital waiting room after the death from leukaemia of John, Annie’s husband. Defying the entrenched conservatism of the WI, they pose for an ‘alternative’ calendar, appearing naked, their modesty only barely protected by carefully arranged teacups and cream buns.
Scripted by Tim Firth who wrote the screenplay for the hugely successful film, the play is genuinely funny, sad, sentimental, captivating… and the fastest selling play in British theatre history. It satirizes, not all that gently, the hallowed traditions of WI membership – cakes, jams and fur-cone craftwork. And calendars of Wharfedale bridges.
Director Paul Smith has drawn on a talented, experienced, intrepid group of ‘girls’ – all of them similar in age to their characters, ie not in the first – or even the second – flush of youth – whose performances convey exceptional stage-presence and nicely nuanced distinctions, in delivery and non-verbally too. The characters are all recognisable types, but must also be recognisably real, not cliched or generalised – and all six actors have the skills to clearly communicate both their individual differences (particularly important in the darker second act) and their closeness. Costumes help (and there are an awesome number of changes) and credit should go to Margaret Liddel for coordinating precise visual cues for the audience.
Performances from all the leads are equally fine, particularly in their handling of ridiculously funny dialogue (which isn’t as easy as it appears). Rachel Buttell is effortlessly credible as the feisty Chris and utterly superb in her opening of Act 2 – a genuinely virtuoso performance. As ‘the naughty schoolgirl’ whose enthusiasm and sheer chutzpah galvanises the girls, Rachel gets the best line: “You know, if more people did WI there’d be half the need for hallucinogenic drugs.” Swannie as Cora is pitch-perfect in her withering delivery of killing one-liners, matching it with very watchable facial expressions. In a role which includes a scene where she’s dressed only in a small tattoo, she is excellent.
Monica Spalding’s Annie is particularly believable in her tender relationship with the failing John and her friendship with Chris. Mary Lewis manages the role of Jessie with characteristic verve and confidence; Charlie Hughes’ haughty Celia does indeed appear to have ‘drifted in from another world’ but her admirable courage and rebelliousness never falter. Penny Bradnum’s Ruth is charmingly naive and earnest, then delightfully transformed by fame and confidence into a stronger, more determined woman. When media exposure and notoriety cause rifts in the girls’ relationships and priorities in the second act there may be fewer laughs but the roles gather depth as the ‘girls’ are forced out of their comfort zones. All six of the leads manage to remain convincing as this process is explored.
The major roles get the support they need from actors playing Marie, John, Brenda Hulse, Lady Cravenshire, Lawrence, Elaine and Liam, all indicating Civic Players’ strength in depth. Ian Oliver is a class act as Rod, relaxed, natural and credible. If northern accents go off the Dales at times, vowels are flattened enough for it not to matter.
As a play, ‘Calendar Girls’ makes significant demands on actors and the director. The death of John should be understated, moving without being mawkish – and in this production it is. Well-lit and simply staged, it is effective and touching. So too is the stand-out scene when the girls pose for their calendar photographs. This is a high-risk moment when fast-moving props and split-second timing (and trust!) are essential. Teetering close to embarrassment – for cast and audience alike – it is a hugely successful, riotous scene, admirable for both its execution and the girls’ gutsy courage. And let’s be frank, when you’re asked to perform before an audience wearing no more than a teaspoon and a bag of caster sugar, courage is undoubtedly called for. Remember, the original calendar girls only stripped for a single (very nervous it is said) photographer, not live audiences on successive nights. Paul Smith’s assured direction gives the play the essential shape and his actors the necessary scope. Throughout, tempo is maintained by brisk lighting changes and slick continuity.
The set works on every level, despite being restricted by a stage the size of a tablecloth. Knapeley church hall is carefully realised, complete with scruffy noticeboards, stacked chairs, gloomy overheard lights and Queen’s portrait; John’s hill is suggested, backed by a nicely painted rural scene. All that is required by the text is delivered and credit should go to Set Designer Graham Hart for that. If the lighting team could get rid of the shadows behind the hill it would be perfect.
As the stage direction at the end of Act One states, “It’s fabulous!” and, Civic Players, it certainly is!
It’s worth remembering that, whilst Taunton’s Brewhouse is still in darkness, Wellington Arts Association continues to provide a regular programme of quality live performances, both at the Arts Centre and at the Wellesley. Local thespians and audiences are especially fortunate to have that sustained reliability on the doorstep.