HILARITY ATTENDS SPIRITED CAST
by Tim Firth
Directed by Alison Quigan
at Court Theatre, Bernard Street, Addington, Christchurch
From 17 Mar 2012 to 28 Apr 2012
[2hrs 20mins, incl. interval]
Reviewed by Lindsay Clark, 18 Mar 2012
If warm and spontaneous applause on opening night are anything to go by, The Court has found another winner in this adaptation of the screenplay, itself based on a gutsy real-life fundraising project by the Yorkshire Women's Institute, for the care of leukaemia sufferers. The women of rural Yorkshire bare all for a nude 'girlie' calendar. The roots of the play then lie in real life and that is ultimately its appeal.
Although the project arises from sad and truthful circumstances, and there are moments when the plot could easily descend into slushy sentiment, Alison Quigan and her team are set on illuminating the humour and determined optimism of the 'girls', whose range of age and occupation guarantees plenty of character interest and some very funny situations.
This is a slow burner though. At first, the group of six women, larking their way through Tai Chi, fending off the officious dictates of their president, seem awkward and their interactions and accents often contrived. The intention to make us laugh feels heavy handed. As the story proper develops, personalities do emerge and momentum with it.
The catalyst is Michael Keir Morrissey's convincing John, husband of Annie, one of the group's stalwarts and loved by all. He is diagnosed with the dread disease, and gradually succumbs to it, but not before, in his sturdy dalesman way, he directs the women to plant sunflowers and take wisdom from the way these happy emblems turn always to the light.
Among its welter of 'womanly' activities, the group is set to plan its annual calendar, but with a real goal – to establish a memorial to mark John's death – they find themselves embarking on the project which not only funds a whole hospital wing but which tests their personal courage and commitment to each other.
Just before interval comes the shooting scene, providing a succession of hilarious moments and setting off a round of delighted applause. Since nudity on stage or off is not as startling as it might once have been, it is very important that we believe in the real courage each woman has to find, and in the strength they draw from each other.
Where to next? The build for the second half comes a little slowly as tensions created by success escalate, especially between chief organiser and media natural Chris (played with wonderful zing by Jude Gibson) and her best friend, the bereaved wife Annie (a role Annie Whittle fleshes out with skill and sensitivity).
As a subplot, the group's naughty stand against traditional Women's Institute doings and their bulldozer snob of a president teeters along until all is transcended in the final wonderful scene. The group gathers on the windy upland where their sunflowers are at last in bloom and where their ragged Tai Chi efforts have become a serene and harmonious ritual.
At times uneven then, in its appeal and effect, the play's lasting images are a strong expression of the beauty of simple things and the wisdom of recognising them. In full voice the women's glorious rendering of Jerusalem echoes their determination to stay on course for the things that matter.
No small part of the overall success of the play lies with the production team. David Thornley's composite set, itself simple and uncluttered, accommodates wide ranging action and circumstance fluently. Importantly it allows for the lighting and sound, both designed by Joe Hayes, to underscore mood and transform situation with his accustomed skill.
Annie Graham's splendid costumes are, of course, an important part of establishing the persons and enhancing their comedy. She also has the challenge of creating appropriate gear for several doubling roles and numerous costume changes. All is provided effectively, as is the daunting number of properties which Tim Bain contributes.
The opening night applause then was partly in recognition of a generously styled production in circumstances which are recognised as very different from those in The Court's old home in the Arts Centre, where all the day to day makings of theatre are still out of reach.
Beyond that, vigorous approval of the spirited cast and their attendant hilarity was appropriate and suggests that a bumper season will follow.
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