Years still shine on Yorkshire lasses

Note the fine patina on the piano: Cora, Jennifer Elison. leads the Calendar Girls in a sing thong

The Calendar Girls

Wolverhampton Grand

****

YOU can't beat a bit of flesh for selling tickets and in Calendar Girls there is ample flesh on display hence lots of bums on seats – and on stage if it comes to that.

But it is not just the promise of  a glimpse of the rather more mature derrieres and other voluptuous bits which packs them in, after all many of the audience are women, but a feel-good, warm hearted play based on a remarkable true story.

The story has a sad beginning, the death of Annie Baker's husband John, a Yorkshire Dales National Parks Officer, from non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the age of 54 in 1998.

The ladies of Rylstone & District Women's Institute* decided to do something in his memory with the modest ambition of raising £500 for a new settee in the visitor room at the hospital where John had been treated.

Tricia Stewart, Chris in the film and play, had already raised the idea of an alternative nude calendar while John had been dying, which cheered him up but he said they would never do it. How wrong he was.

The Alternative WI calendar raised its £500 in its first few days and to date with reissues and merchandise has raised more than £3 million and still funds lymphoma and leukaemia research including new laboratories at the University of Leeds – oh, and it bought a new settee.

The play is based on the film which in turn was inspired by the true story but with names and details changed for dramatic effect..

Driving force for the calendar and the group is Chris, played with drive, humour and humanity by Lynda Bellingham. She is on stage a lot - and we see a lot of her and the bits, or rather lots, we see are defying age rather nicely.

Her best friend is Annie, played touchingly by Jan Harvey. There are moments in her performance when lumps appear in throats.

Lynda Bellingham fills the role of Chris with bags of enthusiam, warmth, fun and a touch of humanity

Celia, Rula Lenska, adds a bit of glamour as well as that honeyed husky voice while for down to earth, no nonsense Yorkshire humour you can't beat retired teacher Jessie, June Watson, who shows some wonderful comic timing.

Also among the great undressed we have the ample form of Ruth, Debbie Chazen, flying the flag for larger ladies everywhere and young, single mum, daughter of the vicar and church organist Cora, although cor might be a suitable alternative for Jennifer Elison.

John Labanowski is the token husband Rod, the full of life other half of Chris while Joe McGann is a believable John – although he could do with a more convincing wig at the start.

His death is cleverly done. One minute he is there the next he is gone. Indeed the direction  by Jack Ryder on a simple effective set design from Robert Jones has some nice touches, for example letters of support and comfort fluttering down from the flies – letters delivered  from heaven are much more effective than someone walking in dragging a mail bag.

The set is a simple floor in a village hall which can change in a few moments to a hill – John's hill – on the Dales and, in the moving, final scene, into a field of sunflowers, the symbol of the whole Calendar Girls enterprise.

In the play, if not in real life, the calendar is being done in secret without approval by the WI chairwoman Marie, Ruth Madoc, who received a cheer when she first entered – something I find quite strange from an audience watching a play.

She is a snob's snob out to impress Lady Cravenshire, Jane Lambert, at every opportunity. The portrayal is a little children's TV, pantomime villainish, which the audience seemed to like, until the gloves come off and the barbs show in a powerful, emotional confrontation with Chris lare on in the play which gives real bite to her performance, finally providing that missing extra dimension.

Chris gets it as well from Annie in another clash of personalities and motives with both disagreements added for their dramatic effect with neither having any basis in real life.

And now, once again, but with clothes on . . .

Indeed a clash between the Calendar Girls with the national WI, seen in the play, never happened with the National body behind the women from the start.

But first the film and then the play never set out to be a documentary. It is a play and as play it works and works well. You feel for Annie, you are ready to cheer for the women and you celebrate their eventual triumph. It is all gentle, genial stuff and you come out into the cold, wet might with a warm glow of happiness.  

The original Calendar Girls were a bunch of ordinary middle aged lasses in the Dales who achieved the extraordinary and this is a fitting tribute even if it can never match their inspiring, real life story. To 29-10-11

Roger Clarke

The Original 11 Calendar girls split over a disagreement over film fights and which film maker they were to choose and only six sold the rights to their stories. In the updated calendar released in 2010 only those six of the original group took part.

 

* Rylstone lies between Skipton and Grassington in the Dales for those who don't know their Yorkshire . . . Skipton's just north west of Keighley . . . that's just north west of Bingley . . . just up the road from Bradford . . . which is a bus ride from Leeds. Wharfedale is the local rugby club if that helps. All right, you just go up the M6 to Preston and turn right.

 

Meanwhile at the end of the month . . .

****

THEY'RE back, baring all - well not quite all - for the last time as the professional show makes its final tour, revealing how a group of ordinary women posed for a cheeky calendar to raise cash for charity.

The play becomes available for amateur companies next September, which should create some excitement amongst Midland drama groups, and it is a real money spinner in more ways than one.

Since the original Calendar Girls at a Yorkshire Women's Institute bravely stripped to raise £500 for a hospital settee and ended up with half a million to build a new cancer treatment wing, the project has brought in £3 million.

A large opening night audience at the Grand - as usual more than 90 per cent women - proved the show can still pull them in, eight years after the hit film was launched.

The cast of the current production comprises mainly mature women of varying shapes and sizes, and the undoubted star of the show is Lynda Bellingham, playing Chris, who has the idea for the special calendar, instead of one showing local scenes or churches, when fellow WI member Annie loses her husband, John to Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma

Lynda shows more than most as she reveals a very impressive figure and super legs, and the top scene shows how the women use buns, with cherries on top, flowers, crockery and even balls of knitting wool as items of minimum cover at the photo shoot.

It's funny and emotional. Inevitably the action dips a little after the hilarious strip, but the audience loved it.     To 29.10.11

Paul Marston 

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