Calendar Girls

Tim Firth
David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers in association with Chichester Festival Theatre
Noël Coward Theatre
(2009)

I challenge anyone to get to the end of this 2¼ hour stage version of the much-loved movie without shedding a tear. Hamish McColl's production, first seen in Chichester, offers no surprises but does what is required to satisfy its audience.

It is hardly worth mentioning the plot, as it is a fair bet that anyone considering a trip to the Noël Coward will have seen the film or read the hype. It should be enough to remind readers that the uplifting tale of a bunch of ordinary Yorkshire folk is based on a true story and has already achieved mythic status on the silver screen.

In summary, when a sextet of middle aged members from a Women's Institute coven (if that is the collective term?) in Yorkshire want to buy a memorial sofa for a hospital they play against stereotype.

As a way of paying tribute to a husband who lost a plucky fight with cancer, they decide to pose nude (not naked as there is an artistic distinction) for a calendar, eventually raising not only the £500 that they needed but, to date, a couple of million more.

Calendar Girls is basically a star vehicle light comedy with lashings of heart. The casting has a bit of everything, classical stage actresses, soap and sitcom favourites and comediennes.

Patricia Hodge is the pick of the bunch as Annie, a brave lady who painfully watches her husband, given a marvellous cameo by Gary Lilburn, fade away.

Lynda Bellingham is her best friend Chris, a raunchy WIer if ever there was one, with a taste for unsubtle persuasion and incipient stardom.

Their bête noir is Brigit Forsyth's snooty Marie, the kind of archetype who has given the movement a reputation for dull stolidity.

The strongest support comes from Siân Phillips, who makes the most of the part of Jessie, subtly injecting the driest of humour unlike some of her colleagues.

Elaine C. Smith makes a good fist of Cora, a confused single mother who cannot communicate with her daughter, singing Jerusalem movingly and playing the piano as a bonus.

Julia Hills is the classic doormat, unwilling to stand up to either her philandering husband or Marie. Last comes glam Gaynor Faye, who persists in bouncing around like some enthusiastic bunny rabbit.

The result is not high art but you cannot help but laugh in all of the right places and get moved by a simple tale of love and inspiration as the ordinary folks from a Yorkshire village conquer the world and pay a remarkable tribute to one of their own.

Hamish McColl ensures that the comic timing is always spot on so that the sum of these parts is way greater than the whole, with lashings of gentle humour, some great visual gags, the odd belly laugh and those inevitable tears.

Sheila Connor reviewed this production at Chichester

Philip Fisher