“The global phenomenon is back for the very last time!” trumpets the publicity material for the current tour of Calendar Girls. But whether you consider this news to be a great shame or a blessed relief will be very much down to taste.
The story that inspired Calendar Girls - that of the group of Yorkshire Women’s Institute ladies who stripped off for a charity calendar that’s now raised more than £3 million - needs no detailed introduction at this juncture. Fashioned from his own screenplay for Nigel Cole’s 2003 film, Tim Firth’s stage adaptation has enjoyed a successful West End run and sell-out national tours in the last few years. Yet despite the evident audience good-will that’s built up around the show, the stage version struggles to replicate the film’s success at an artistic level. Rather, Firth’s adaptation seems to have drained most of the poignancy and grace notes out of the material, resulting in a show that at times veers perilously close to Carry On Calendar Girls in tone.
As in its previous incarnations, the show, directed by (former cast member) Jack Ryder from Hamish McColl’s original production, benefits from strong casting, with Lynda Bellingham and Debbie Chazen reprising their roles as Chris and Ruth, Jennifer Ellison switching roles from Celia to Cora, and Rula Lenska, Jan Harvey, Ruth Madoc and June Watson now joining the team.
For some of the cast, panto season seems to have come early. Speaking in deep tones, Madoc hams outrageously as the stickler WI leader Marie, while Bellingham plays to the hilt Chris’s good-hearted cheekiness. As Jessie, the oldest member of the group, June Watson gets the best piece of writing in the play - a monologue on age - perhaps to compensate for the fact that the rest of her dialogue is simply a series of quips and rejoinders of the “No front bottoms!” variety. Channelling Joanna Lumley as Patsy Stone, and using her hair as a prop when the dialogue lets her down, Rula Lenska has her stylish moments as Celia, while Debbie Chazen brings a few endearing touches to the unassertive Ruth, but ultimately can do little with a role that wrests laughs by such comic “business” as having her appear in a rabbit costume. As Annie, whose husband John’s death from cancer prompts the women to do the calendar, Jan Harvey delivers the least showy performance, but her scenes with John (an underused Joe McGann) are too brief to generate much emotional impact.
Indeed, for a piece that's based on a true story, it’s surprising just how many details here strike false notes. The back-stories that Firth has devised for the characters - a single mother here, a straying hubby there - have little weight, and the characters’ dilemmas tend to be resolved in the most contrived and obvious of manners. This is the kind of production in which absolutely everything is on the surface. Tensions arise on cue, followed by hasty reconciliations. Plaintive piano music underscores the “poignant” moments.
The achievements of the real-life Calendar Girls certainly deserve celebrating, and, judging by the vocal response of much of the audience, Calendar Girls is a show that clearly makes a great deal of people very happy indeed. But those anticipating a somewhat less broad approach may find it a disappointing experience overall.
Further information on tour dates and venues here.
Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.