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Print Version

Written by Tim Firth
Directed by Shane Anthony

at Fortune Theatre, Dunedin
From 10 Nov 2012 to 8 Dec 2012

Reviewed by Terry MacTavish, 12 Nov 2012

For sheer entertainment, the Fortune could not have made a better choice for the Christmas season. Even the most curmudgeonly will find it hard to resist the appeal of a production so charming and – well, I'm trying to find a term less clichéd than heart-warming, but that does sum it up.

Shane Anthony, who also directed last year's brilliant Avenue Q, has been blessed with a great cast of seasoned professionals who are clearly enjoying themselves and each other.

The premise and script are amusing and the laughter is continuous, but it is as a celebration of friendship and the gutsy courage of ordinary women that Calendar Girls reaches a deeper level. Warmth and humanity overflow the stage, embracing the patrons and sending them home in a happy glow.

Most people probably know that this play is based on a true story: a Yorkshire Women's Institute group pose nude for a calendar shoot to raise money to fight cancer, following the death of the husband of one of their number. Doubtless because they are not youthful glamour-pusses but real women, it is a sensational success.

Calendar Girls has some aspects in common with the Fortune's powerful production of The Pitmen Painters, in which a team of fine male actors demonstrated similarly impressive ensemble work. Both plays are set in rural northern England, and follow the same narrative pattern: the first half takes the group to triumph while the second half deals with the consequences of success.

There's a curious buzz in an audience about to see a play that features nudity. The awareness that we are going to know these actors so much more intimately engenders a sort of complicity, a slightly guilty excitement. But this is no strip club, and the atmosphere is supportive, almost protective.

My guest, herself actually President of a local Women's Institute, is chuckling over the authenticity of the set, a church hall relieved from bleakness by its polished wooden floor. “Yes, there's always a lectern, stacks of chairs, a rickety table, a portrait of the Queen, lots of things covered with cloths because they belong to some other outfit, and one old heater high up where it never heats anything.”

The characters too, she recognises at once. “There's always a bossy boots and a pianist, one a bit cynical, and one prude who won't come to the pub afterwards.” Most authentic of all, she whispers, as they blunder their way with laughter and teasing through some dubious Tai Chi moves, is that the women are having such fun. “In friendship's circle bright,” as the Institute ode puts it.  So that's the point of these close-knit women's communities? Fun and friendship?  “No,” she says firmly, “we do good deeds.”  I will be surprised if this play doesn't inspire lots of new recruits.

The production values are of typically high Fortune* standard, beginning with King and Best's credible church hall, so beautifully constructed that even the doors operate without that ominous shaking of the flats. It serves surprisingly well for all indoor scenes. The outdoors set is less convincing, though having spent a year tramping the glorious Yorkshire Dales I can't see how you could possibly replicate their majesty on stage.

Maryanne Wright-Smyth has produced costumes that neatly reflect the character of each woman, including amusingly appropriate dressing gowns (as she did for The Motor Camp) and culminating in glamorous black evening wear. 

For the calendar photo shoot, Jen Aitken has come up with an amazing and ingenious array of props to protect the modesty of actors who, to the delighted approval of the audience, clearly are totally nude.

The splendid and courageous female actors are valiantly supported by three men, including an engaging Timothy Bartlett who represents the mostly bemused husbands, and the very versatile Danny Still who steals scenes as both the innocent young photographer and the obnoxious ad-man.

Dunedin's beloved Peter Hayden, his head bravely shaved, plays John, who claims women are more beautiful with age, and whose death inspires the calendar. Hayden endows John with such sweetness that we believe the women would overcome their initial reluctance in their desire to honour his memory.

But it is the women's story, and the eight fine actors not only flesh out their own characters, avoiding the temptation to ridicule the women they are based on, but also develop finely nuanced relationships within the group.

The driving force is Chris (yes, the Helen Mirren part in the film which I am mentioning only this once!), the sort of woman, my friend informs me, who is in the WI because it's the only social life available. Her relentless perkiness could have become irritating, but Donna Akersten succeeds in winning our affection, with just enough vulnerability beneath the bravado.

Hilary Halba makes a memorable Ruth, hilarious as the mousy goody-good in tragic costumes (those rabbit ears!), blossoming into a stunning pin-up. Lisa Warrington finds the humour in unconventional school teacher Jessie, delivering a wonderfully crisp put-down of the ex-pupil who is horrified to find himself photographing her naked.

Clare Adams' musical talents prove an asset to her role as cheerful Cora, and Donogh Rees gives Celia a smile so deliciously alluring it eclipses even the famous ‘bigger buns' line. Hilary Norris is in her element as the WI's capable but bossy organiser, while Lynda Milligan is very skilful in three funny contrasting cameos. 

Most poignant of all is Michele Amas as the newly widowed Annie. She is so touching and true in her interpretation of a woman bravely concealing her own pain, to give smiling support to her dying husband, that almost palpable waves of sympathy emanate from the audience. My friend wants to hug her. 

But the classic disrobing scene is what we have been waiting for, and it does not disappoint, each delightfully posed ‘month' winning resounding applause as well as laughter. The gender politics of nudity are fascinating: exploitation or empowerment? 

My stern great-aunt Ada, condemning striptease, appalled my teenage self by adding, “I need only take off my clothes and look at myself in the mirror. I've got all the bits they have!” Who'd have thought I'd ever come to realise that every body is beautiful. 

Years ago non-NZ actors touring Steaming complained about the workouts and dieting required to keep them looking good on stage, completely missing the point that the play demanded normal every-shape women. This cast knows better.

Yet every one of these mature ladies succeeds in looking absolutely gorgeous in the famous nude poses. The programme supplies a cute 2013 calendar with handy home hints and lively pictures of the production, but I for one would have been more than happy to buy the actual shots as inspiration for the coming year.

After all, as playwright Firth says, “to perform the play requires the exact bravery and group spirit as did the original endeavour.”  Or as my friend the president would say, in the WI's own words, “Teach us to put into action our better impulses, straightforward and unafraid.”  Just what this proud production exemplifies!

*One of the key members of the excellent Fortune team, General Manager Jeremy Smith, is departing to become manager of historic Olveston, and his place will be taken by erstwhile Otago Festival organiser, Nicholas McBryde. I would like to pass on best wishes to both. The theatre world is grateful! 
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.

See also reviews by:
 Barbara Frame (Otago Daily Times);
 Brenda Harwood (The Star);