The story of the WI Calendar Girls is probably one with which most of us are familiar. The sentiment and sincerity behind the tale has me on side from the word go, before I even step inside the theatre. The story goes: a group of WI ladies from Yorkshire, most of whom are a little over the hill – though none of whom are any less vibrant and mischievous – decide to produce and sell a nude WI calendar in memory of Annie’s late husband, John, in order to raise money for the Leukaemia Research Fund.
Even though it’s inspired by a true story, the plot may seem like the stuff of the director of Glee’s dreams; an optimistic success story, possibly complete with a feel-good musical finale. However, with original writer of the 2003 film’s screenplay Tim Firth on board and direction from (yet another ex-Eastender) Jack Ryder, the play is nothing of the sort. The audience were in hysterics from the get-go, with Lynda Bellingham doing a fantastic turn as brash and ballsy Chris, and the utterly adorable June Watson as no-nonsense pensioner Jessie.
While the cast was mostly well-chosen and acted with sincerity, Ruth Madoc being another example as social-climbing WI leader Marie, there were a couple of characters who left me a little cold. In what was essentially a glorified cameo role, ex-Strictly Come Dancing professional Camilla Dallerup’s airheaded make-up artist felt over acted and the strained facial expressions reminded me a little of those seen in school plays. Jennifer Ellison’s character Cora played out along similar lines. Whilst I enjoyed the youth and enthusiasm she brought to the production, her character demanded a much nimbler grasp of comedic timing and skill than Ellison could really offer. This was mostly due to her desire to over-enunciate every line and frequent attempts to elicit facial animation by relying on her eyebrows.
I also found myself perplexed as to the reason for the stage’s sloped surface whose gradient was twice increased to an almost alarming angle, to represent a hill on the Yorkshire moors. It looked a little precarious and made me fear for the actors’ safety to watch them teeter around on it under the pretence that it was all entirely normal. The last thing we’d have needed was lovely June Watson nose-diving head first into the front row.
In spite of these small imperfections, my enjoyment of the story was such that I could overlook any arguable flaws and allow myself to be swept up in its humour, grief and humanity. The story in itself requires little modification, thus it was nice to see that Firth and Ryder had stayed relatively faithful to the original tale without (much) distraction from the actors and staging. What I think engaged the audience was the connection forged by the production’s honesty and familiarity with events we may experience in our own lives as we advance in years; some joyful, some not. As Jessie so accurately states in a scene, “I don’t have a problem with age, it has a problem with me.”
Calendar Girls is playing at the Richmond Theatre until 3rd December. For more information and tickets, see the Richmond Theatre’s website.