Cambridge's leading amateur theatre production company

Established 1981

Calendar Girls
by  Tim Firth   directed by Ron Meadows

The ADC Theatre, Cambridge, July 2013

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A Review of Calendar Girls
by Guy Holmes

Calendar Girls is based on the true story of the ladies of the Rylstone Women's Institute in Yorkshire and how they set out to raise funds to replace a sofa on the cancer ward of a local hospital to commemorate a friend's husband. They decide to produce and sell their own 'art calendar', in which their divine but very naked countenances are arrayed, albeit tastefully obscured by a range of WI activities. The calendar is an out and out success, raising far more money than they expect and instead of buying a sofa, they find themselves able to fund the construction of a whole new memorial ward. However, their display of bare faced cheek puts them on collision course with the WI, in conflict with their families, and ultimately with each other.  

The play is both a comedy and an allegory combining the silliness of the Tibetan Yak movement in Tai Chi, worryingly obsessive talks on 'the history of the tea towel' and 'the fascinating world of Broccoli', with the sadness and loneliness of love lost, and the frustration of unfulfilled desires.

Whilst Calendar Girls has some serious overtones, it is definitely set to a comedy score. Far from a challenging heavyweight piece about the WI, the play owes more to the pleasant pastures of Jerusalem rather than its clouded hills and mental fight. With characters as strong as Yorkshire tea, monologues that roll like the Dales, thrifty one-liners and acerbic put-downs, it is very funny and at times, satisfyingly unpredictable. But despite all of its northern bluff, it still manages to maintain a sensitivity that is warm and gentle and at once affecting and moving. In the hands of an inexperienced cast and director, this pathos could easily be overwhelmed and lost, however, given the understanding and empathy of the director (Ron Meadows), and the experience and talent of many of the cast members, the comedy and seriousness were handled with balance and sensitivity. This was a production of high quality that would have graced the prize-winners stand at the Yorkshire Fair.

The partnership of John (Michael Husband) and Annie Clarke (Sally Marsh) made a particularly strong impression. Their courage, strength, and care for each other shone through in their individual performances, and together they made a resolutely credible couple. John's progression from his diagnosis through decline to his inevitable death was directed and performed with power and subtlety without being oversentimental or mawkish. This was a very moving and skilful portrayal by these two actors in partnership.

In this they were ably supported by the ladies of the WI. As the play progresses it transpires that many have their own demons to face. Cora (Lindsey McAuley), the church organist and daughter of the vicar, labours with the guilt of abandoning her out-of-wedlock daughter. Celia (Cathy McCluskey) drinks to cope with her husband's obsession with golf, her own obsession with status, and her ostracisation by the golf club ladies. Ruth (Caroline Harbord) struggles with her desperate desire to please others, and win back her philandering husband, whilst Marie (Rosie Wilson) sparks with the frustration that she cannot shepherd her anarchic and cat-like WI members, and burns with a driving ambition to run a premier league Women's Institute. Retired school teacher Jessie (Brenda Cottis) seems to be the only of their number that has found any sense of inner peace.

Lindsey McAuley excelled as the anarchic and slightly dippy Cora, delivering a first class characterisation and almost stealing the show. Cathy McCluskey was completely believable in the guise of Celia as she changed from golf club Harpy to gain acceptance as one of the girls. Caroline Harbord captured the very essence of the ingratiating Ruth, nicely managing the balance between keenness and sadness, and Rosie Wilson delivered a taught, brittle, and appropriately stuck-up Marie. Throughout all of the turmoil, like a lighthouse in a storm, was Jessie, played with dignity and radiance by Brenda Cottis.

The star of the show was the magnificent Mandi Cattell, dominating the stage and utterly inhabiting the character of Chris. As the organising force behind the calendar, and the catalyst that drives each of the WI team to act well beyond their comfort zone, this was a tremendous performance, full of wit and personality. She set a high standard, which, to their credit, her WI members came close to matching.

Of the rest of the cast, strong performances from Rosemary Eason (Lady Cravenshire) and Sarah Middle (Elaine) were matched by the energy of Sean Baker (Lawrence) and Chris Avery (Brenda, the broccoli expert). And last but not least, Isabel Rees deserves special mention for her portrayal of Liama, the advertising gofer. This was a confident, subtle, and polished performance, all the more impressive being so close to the end of the play.

These were well delivered performances. That the first few scenes would have benefitted from more volume, pace, and faster cue-bite, is mere hair-splitting given the timing, delivery, and energy of the rest of the play.  No doubt this will only improve given more time. 

The box set design (Tony Broscomb) worked perfectly and looked absolutely right, and the exploding projector effect was splendid (Martin Avery and Chris Hay). For a play so celebrated for its nudity, there were a surprising number of costumes and changes, all of which had to suit the various seasons and occasions. That the changes were managed without hitch is a testament to the organisation and hard work of Sheila Pierre and her team. My favourite was the giant gerbil suit.

As for the nude scene, it was all rather tastefully done. Far from being the awkward and uncomfortable spectacle that I had expected, it was anything but. Movement and teamwork were so well choreographed that it seemed only perfectly natural for people to be sitting naked on stage in front of a full house and being photographed. It was almost as though the audience were the odd ones out by being fully clothed. Given the plum-jam-boiling temperature in the auditorium, I know which I would have preferred.

If grief and loss provide the backdrop to the play, wit and humour provide the light. Without ever straying too far from its comic roots, Calendar Girls provides an illustration of how we travel through life obsessed with trivia, seeking meaning and comfort in the mundane, struggling with our desires to be accepted, to be loved, to change the past, and to be better than we are.

But above and beyond these things, this particular production succeeds in conveying the celebration of kinship and camaraderie, of the underdog triumphing over the establishment, of a challenge embraced, and of the fact that ordinary people working together can achieve extraordinary things.