Sunday, 28 September 2008

Calender Girls - Chichester

Calendar Girls by Tim Firth
Chichester Festival Theatre
Director: Hamish McColl
Review by David Aldridge

I have to say that my reaction to this acclaimed performance of calendar girls rather echoes the comments of a reviewer earlier on this site who observed that Jonathan Church appears to be catering to the “Sussex blue rinse” contingent. Obviously the subject-matter of this piece lends itself to a certain audience, but nevertheless I feel that both the writing of this stage version of Tim Firth’s successful film and Hamish McColl's direction still lacked a certain energy, which is a shame considering the story’s central theme of not yielding to the cultural boundaries imposed by age and background.

It was a delight watching the performance in the company of the original calendar girls, and this certainly lent the occasion an additional emotional charge, but overall I found the piece to be heart-warming but never heart-rending, touching without ever really moving.

An inventive set-design by Robert Jones saw almost all of the action taking place in a conventional WI hall complete with piano, serving hatch and markings for a badminton court. The same court was then raised at a gentle angle to suggest “John’s Hill”, where two of the more poignant

scenes in the play take place. Some simple lighting on a vision of the Yorkshire countryside which was constantly in view suggested the inexorable march of the seasons (at quite an alarming rate, as it happened).

Sian Phillips stole the show for me, as the strict schoolteacher who was also the most elderly of the Calendar Girls; provided with a rather predictable line in response to some patronising comments about her age, she nevertheless relished declaring that she was going outside to “score some crack”, and a passionate speech about the way that in old age one’s interests tend to expand to fill the time one allots to them was – for this reviewer – the most arresting point of the evening. Linda Bellingham’s bold costume after she disrobes for her photograph will have given her something to talk about on “Loose Women” for years to come, and the rest of the impressive cast do a fine job, although on more than one occasion after yet another impassioned rant about the role of the middle class wife I felt that applause was offered more out of duty than rapture.
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