Sunflowers, tears and hope

Calendar Girls

Wolverhampton Grand

****

THE Calendar Girls phenomenon is supposedly on its last ever tour and is still packing them in as it trundles its strategically placed buns and teapots around the country.

After this you will have to rely upon amateur versions with 950 companies having taken out licences so farin the 18 month window allowed, taking up the challenge to set both a world record for the number of productions and raise money for Leukemia research. That is almost 6,000 ordinary women getting their kit off in the name of art – and hoping the props are both on stage and in the right place and the director has got the sightlines right.

After that? Well make believe is the stock in trade of theatre so whether this is the last ever tour or the last until the next one – back by popular demand – remains to be seen, in the meantime it is still a heart-warming tale of the Jam and Jerusalem world of the Womens' Institute.

The original calendar girls came from the tiny chocolate box village of Cracoe (pop 160) and were members of  Rylstone & District Women's Institute down the road from Grassington in Wharfdale in the Yorkshire Dales. Despite  being made into a smash-hit film the story has a much greater connection to the theatre than the screen.

The story is simple. John Baker was an Assistant National Park Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, who died from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, aged just 54 in 1998. While he was undergoing treatment his wife, Angela,  and her friends, members of the WI, decided to do some fund raising to replace a decrepit sofa in the visitor's lounge at the hospital where he was being treated.

Eventually, after his death, they decided to produce their alternative WI calendar to give the sofa fund a boost and the rest is history;  more than £3 million has been raised so far – plus a sofa.

John Baker was a member and former treasurer of Grassington Players, the excellent theatre group who staged the first amateur production in August, and some of the original Calendar Girls were also members - Miss January, Beryl Bamforth, is still a member while her son Mark played John in the Grassington world amateur premiere.

Barely recognisable, so to speak, Lesley Joseph keeps everything moving as the driving force, Chris

In Tim Firth's screen and then stage version names and story are changed to give a fictionalised version based on the real events adding extra dramas an conflicts such as the regional and national councils of the WI supposedly opposed to the calendar when in fact they were fully supportive.

In the play the driving force for the calendar is  Chris, close friend of John's widow who is now called Annie.

Leslie Joseph takes on the role with gusto. She has superb comic timing for her asides and putdowns as she drags everyone along yet she can produce believable pathos and vulnerability amid the laughs in a performance that sparkles all night long – and, for someone who sports experience rather than youth these days. she also sports an impressively fine figure and pair of legs  in case you are interested

In the play Chris gets carried away with the fame and celebrity machine and it is John's widow Annie, her close friend, who has to drag her back to earth. Annie is played by Sue Holderness, Marlene from Only Fools and Horses, who can not only act but has one of those alluring voices which are just different enough to make them attractive and interesting.

Other partners in crime, so to speak are Kacey Ainsworth as the nervous, insecure Ruth who also has to put up with her husband playing away. She finds a small libation, just a bottle or two or so it appeared,  helps her one shot modelling career around the marmalade table and even helps in the full, frank and short discussion with the beautician who left her underwear  in her husband's car.

Then there is Cora, Dora Payne, the unmarried mum worried about sullying a reputation that is hardly polished and shining before the calendar; Celia, Kathryn Rooney, who is all designer clothes and perfect grooming – no that that doesn't mean she can't lob a grenade into the golf club circles she reluctantly moves in, and finally there is ex-teacher Jessie, Helen Fraser, who has had a lifetime of kids so nothing frightens her any more.

One lump or two vicar? Sue Holderness as Annie shows off the finer points of pouring tea

The six main characters all work well together, six ordinary women with ordinary lives who are embarking, although they don't know it, upon an extraordinary journey. As the evening wears on we learn more about them, their stories and their fears.

Helping, or hindering their cause is the WI branch chairwoman Marie, Ruth Madoc, who is tolerated rather than liked but  who has one serious moment after the interval when she launches into Chris. Chris takes a bit of a kicking in Act 2 when Annie also has a go as characters all find a speech or two to tell us about their feelings.

The play has some poignant moments, some funny moments and some which are just sad such as the sacksful of letters from those affected by cancer - which is perhaps part of its strength.

Most people in the audience know someone close who has had or been affected by cancer, some will have been diagnosed with the disease – I had bowel cancer six years ago – and it is probably the one word we all fear and dread;  yet Calendar Girls shows that cancer is not all emptiness and desolation, it doesn't shirk from the disease but meets it head on, toe to toe, showing that people care - and perhaps most of all, giving hope.

In the end it is a very British, gentle comedy with a warm-hearted feel-good factor. It might be the last we see of Calendar Girls and their sunflowers, at least for a while, but their legacy will be around for a long time to come. To 17-10-12

Roger Clarke

And from behind the tea urn . . .

****

THIS is the final tour of the record breaking professional play based on the true story of a Yorkshire Women's Institute group who raised eyebrows by posing nude to raise cash the local hospital.

But ordinary women all over the UK will continue taking their clothes off on stage and boosting cancer research funds because Tim Firth's poignant play has been snapped up by no less than 950 amateur companies.

The professional version enjoyed a record-breaking run in Wolverhampton last year, and judging by opening night will do very well indeed on its farewell visit.

Veteran actress Lesley Joseph is excellent as Chris, driving force in the WI group who become a global phenomenon when they pose for the calendar hoping to make enough cash to buy a settee for the hospital where the husband of one of their members was treated before he died.

The ladies pose tastefully on stage for the photo shoot, using flowers, music sheets, knitting wool and teapots for a little cover, though Birmingham's own Kathryn Rooney, playing Celia, shows rather more than expected when she briefly abandons her iced, cherry-topped buns and shoots her arms into the air.

The Calendar Girls continue getting their kit off until 17.11.12

Paul Marson 

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