Friday, 28 November 2008

Calendar Girls - On Tour

Calendar Girls by Tim Firth
Director: Hamish McColl
Reviewer: Ann Bawtree

The famous story of the heroic Women’s Institute members whose bold scheme to raise money in support of Leukaemia Research has been well documented in the media, by the sale of their product and by a block buster film based on their story. Now we have the stage play by Tim Firth, worthy of the original protagonists.

The Girls, Cora (Elaine C Smith), the “ruined” vicar’s daughter, Chris (Lynda Bellingham) the shop owner, Annie (Patricia Hodge) the widow, Jessie (Siân Phillips) the retired teacher, Celia (Gaynor Faye) the trophy wife, the mousie Ruth (Julia Hills) and Marie (Brigit Forsyth) branch chairman, range in age over four decades. Gradually they reveal their own reasons for joining the WI, all very different from the original founders who wished to support isolated farmers’ wives in rural Canada at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries.

Costume is so important in establishing character and Emma Williams’ choice of kinky boots through neat tweed suits to baggy cardigans leaves no room for doubt. The story of the struggle to raise £519 to replace the hospital’s waiting room settee and its staggering success unfolds on a magnificently engineered stage. The set is of the walls of the village hall standing in front of a backdrop of the Yorkshire dales. For the outdoor scenes, the walls slide silently out of sight. The final transformation scene drew gasps of admiration. The passage of time is marked subtly and effectively with changes of lighting designed by Malcolm Rippeth and seasonal music chosen by Steve Parry.

Director Hamish McColl shows us the swift decline of John (Gary Lilburn), from rugged countryman to shadowy invalid and his eventual death, in a quiet, restrained manner. The rest of the play is a riot of fun interspersed with thoughtful one to one exchanges. Tim Firth cleverly avoids the Hollywood episode of the film with a more low key situation, still causing the same discussion and controversy. Of course the high spot of the evening is the photographic session. Here the props department comes into its own with evermore elaborate arrangements wheeled in. The “girls” assiduously guard their friends’ modesty with only the tiniest bit of cheating.
One suspects that Rod (Gerard McDermott) keeps his head down at home and in the shop. Joan Blackham plays both Brenda Hulse, the expert speaker on uninteresting topics and the elegant and well meaning Lady Cravenshire, using her height to great effect in both cases. Abby Francis and Carl Prekopp also have a chance to show their versatility, she as first the arrogant reporter on the local paper and then as a soppily solicitous make up artist, he demonstrating the difference between a sympathetic photographer and one who is just in it for the money.
The mathematically minded may be allowed a niggle that we are given only six ladies to cover twelve months but artistic licence must be allowed. Since 2000 the Calendar Girls fund has raised £2million and is not prepared to stop there.
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