Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Calendar Girls - Mayflower Theatre, Southampton

Calendar Girls by Tim Firth
Music by Tim Parry
Director: Hamish McColl
Reviewer: Fiona MacKenzie

Absurdity gets the first laugh in Calendar Girls. The sight of a motley assortment of middle-aged women attempting tai-chi to inept instructions and an increasingly strident rendition of ‘Jerusalem’ is an easy comedic entrance point as you settle into your seat. Combine this with the incongruity of a group of well-known actresses lined up in a rather Am-Dram face-front format in front of a simple village-hall set, and you have the beginning of this perfectly-pitched production of the by-now familiar story of the Yorkshire WI who strip for charity.

The familiar village-hall atmosphere invites us to join a WI meeting where the ladies fondly mock each other, so revealing the characters of the soon-to-be rather more fully-exposed women. Cora (Elaine C Smith), loud and voluptuous as a tulip, with a colourful past and a secret or two; Annie (Patricia Hodge) a classic dignified English rose; Jessie (Sian Phillips) the wise, educated retired teacher, as much a part of everyone’s past as a geranium on a primary school windowsill; Celia (Gaynor Faye) – no shrinking violet; Ruth (Julia Hills), the eternal wallflower, and Chris (Lynda Bellingham), bright and blousy as a sunflower. Enter also Marie (Brigit Forsyth), who hams it up as a dry, prickly cactus of a WI chairwoman, introducing the stereotypical brogue-wearing visiting speaker, played by Brenda Hulse.
The charm of this rudimentary character and scene-setting is just about to pall when we hit the first poignant moment of the play. John, (Gary Lilburn), husband of Annie arrives to tell her that he has had the results of his blood test. Although unspoken, the news is not good, and we witness Chris being party to her friend’s distress. The incongruity of life again plays its dramatic part, with this vibrant character unfairly facing death so early.

A comic pastiche of rural life follows, with the girls reluctantly trying to fulfil the demands of the local WI show, laced with home made punch with flaming sunflower seeds, recommended by John as the life-force of his favourite flower. We see him as a stalwart, dignified Yorkshireman who, facing death, remains passionate about life and its most beautiful manifestations. With the line "The flowers of Yorkshire are like the women of Yorkshire. Every stage of their growth has its own beauty, but the last phase is always the most glorious…” John leaves his wheelchair, and the stage, for the last time, although the end of this speech, read from his notes, gives him his last laugh.

This poignant scene leads to the pivotal epiphany of the play. Suddenly the stage tilts into a surreal Yorkshire hillside, as the girls meet to discuss better ways of fundraising than a calendar featuring Wharfedale bridges. Best-selling raunchy calendars are distributed to a shocked reception. But, with John’s love of the beauty of women still lingering, so the seed of an idea is sown. And so through germination, of gradual uncurling and nurturing of each other, suddenly these women are ready to bloom, and wow, what a show of colour! The scene of the shooting of the calendar is so slick, such quick-fire line-throwing and timing of posing, lighting and blossoming of personality, it truly is like the best kind of posy – a thrown together mixture of zest and variety.

The show is effectively and movingly directed and the cast provide a memorable and emotional evening at the theatre, that will not be forgotton in the near future

Calendar Girls runs at the Mayflower Theatre until Saturday 7th March
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