Calendar Girls

Tim Firth, based on the 2003 film written by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
(2010)

Publicity photo

Since it first appeared at Chichester in 2008, Calendar Girls, the play, has become more than just a play, as was very obvious on the first night of its two week run at Newcastle's Theatre Royal (a run which, incidentally, is close to selling out). There were men in the audience but they were massively outnumbered by the women. And it was women of all ages: there was at least one girl of about 8 or 9, many were in their 70s or 80s and the rest were all ages in between.

When each of the women took off their dressing gowns for their photograph, there were shouts of "Yes!" and cheers from the audience. It has become a celebration of womanhood and (dare I use the word?) liberation, a kind of - for the audience - female bonding event. And they loved it! I did spot a few - a very few - sour faces but they were a tiny minority, a fact further attested to by that excited buzz as the audience left that so clearly shows that a good time has been had.

The story, of course, is well known and needs no further retelling from me.

Well, that's what I was going to write but, of course, it isn't true. What is well known is the nude calendar produced by the members of a Yorkshire WI to raise funds for a sofa for the family room of the local hospital in memory of the husband of one of the members, but that's all done by the interval. It may be the comedy highlight but there is more to the play than that.

It's a play about friendship, about small village relationships and rivalries, about snobbery, with occasional sideswipes at religion and even the WI itself. And, in addition to the comedy, there is also sadness, indeed pathos.

That said, parts of the second act do feel like padding but the cast go to it with such enthusiasm that the audience is carried along, as it builds to a frankly sentimental ending which brought tears to their eyes.

It would be easy to overplay the piece, making the characters into caricatures (the single mother vicar's daughter, the retired school teacher, the posh one, the little mouse, the bereaved wife and so on), but this cast, under the revival director Psyche Stott, give them depth and reality.

The cast for this stage of the tour (they change every twelve weeks) includes Letitia Dean, Lynda Bellingham. Jan Harvey, Judith Barker, Gemma Atkinson, Hannah Waterman as the calendar girls themselves, Richenda Carey as the WI chair and Colin Tarrant as John, the husband of Annie (Harvey), whose death sparks off the whole thing. It's a fine cast and they leave you with a sense of real commitment to the show.

Not great drama by any means, but nonetheless an entertaining, funny and often moving piece of theatre.

Continuing at the Theatre Royal until 10th April.

Sheila Connor reviewed this production at Chichester

Reviewer: Peter Lathan