‘Calendar Girls’

‘Calendar Girls’ was adapted for the stage by Wirral-born playwright, Tim Firth. After reading English at Cambridge, Tim went to one of Willy Russell’s Arvon Foundation courses in West Yorkshire. He later met Alan Ayckbourn and was commissioned to write a play.

With the photos taken by Terry Logan, a professional photographer married to one of the models, the 2000 WI calendar was released in April 1999. By Christmas, it had sold 88,000 copies raising half a million pounds. The proceeds were used to fund new laboratories in Leeds University, specifically for lymphoma and leukaemia research.

The script of this production seemed to have been updated, with quite a few differences from the previous versions that I have seen.

You can see this very funny and bold 135-minute production by the Stirling Players at The Stirling Theatre, Morris Place, Innaloo. Evening shows commence at 8.00 pm on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights until the 12th of December, with a 2.00 pm matinee on Sunday 29th November, and another on 6th December.

The Yorkshire hills about 20 years ago. The set is the interior of the community hall, an old fibro building with cream walls.

        It is evening in the Yorkshire Dales’ village of Knapely. In the church hall, the ladies of the Women’s Institute, led by Chris (Sharon Menzies) are finishing their Tai Chi class, whilst Cora (Jenni Glassford) is left to sing the organisation’s anthem ‘Jerusalem’ alone. They are awaiting the arrival of Brenda (Julie Holmshaw), possibly their most boring guest speaker ever, her visit being organised by finicky Marie (Joan Scafe).

     During the meeting, Annie (Charlotte Weber) is updating her friends with the progress of John, her 54-year-old very sick husband (Alan Bascombe).

     The visits to the hospital involve long periods sitting on plastic chairs, so Chris and her husband, Rod (Paul Cook), suggest that they raise money for a settee for the waiting room. Marie is keen to have a change from the usual plum jam and sponge cake competitions, with the same old judge – the supercilious, Lady Cravenshire (Julie Holmshaw) – and instead to sell a calendar with beautiful photos of Wharfedale bridges. Chris utters ‘Boring’ and suggests a spicy calendar of photos produced by, and of, the girls of their Chapter.

     Attractive Celia (Jennifer McGrath) is keen on the calendar idea; however, it was not until they explained to the vicar’s daughter, Cora that they meant nude photos that the panic started. Ruth (Dale James / Gail Lusted) said she had misunderstood and refused to strip. Thankfully, Jessie (Janet Brandwood) uses large gauge knitting needles for her hobby.

     Annie found that one of the hospital porters, shy Lawrence (Milos Dragic), was a keen and capable photographer so he was ‘volunteered’. Ruth found a professional makeup girl, Elaine (Becky Barton) who was renowned for her generous free help.

     The girls had to face the National Conference of this staid organisation and put forward their case. Then, to their horror, another photographer, Liam (Milos Dragic) arrived to take promotional pictures.

I saw this play on the opening night, so the tensions were high. For the cast with an average age of around 50 and of all different figures, a great deal of credit must be given for them possibly having even more courage and pluck than the original calendar ladies, who were only photographed – not live. Then Dale, the poor director, – most capably – had to stand in for one of the ‘girls’ who could not appear on the night.

This cast has a tremendous laisse-faire attitude, getting down to the nitty-gritty and showing the audience what fun the original group must have had in the process. The audience was extremely supportive, with very positive comments during the intermission.

I realise how very difficult it is for so many theatrical groups to get set designers and builders. It involves a great deal of hard work and is often a thankless task, but I was a little disappointed with the set. The serving hatch had disappeared, but the cast did well without it. However, it was the lack of pictures and posters that made the community hall look stark, even some of the photo boards on the auditorium wall could have been borrowed, and would have made the set look more realistic and ‘lived in’. For the scene on the hill, one production of this show had, at each side of the proscenium arch, artwork showing the rolling hills of the Yorkshire dales. Then at the end of the play, the rear wall split to reveal a stunning panorama. I appreciate that this was extraordinary. Another show had trelliswork with flowers in front of the stage, so I was a little disappointed when the group appeared to sit on a blanket on the floor in the middle of the community hall, with no sign of vegetation anywhere. Perhaps a few pot plants on the stage apron and the hall in the darkness behind? Had the group been fortunate and rich enough to have the new LED lighting, then the blues and greens of nature would have been more easily displayed. Having said this, the final floral scene was spectacular.

A couple of actors were called upon to perform two different characters. Julie Holmshaw was wonderful, capturing different accents, stances, her walk was different and the costumes were markedly dissimilar. There was no doubt that she portrayed two different people. However, the other actor, although performing admirably, did cause some confusion to the audience who thought he was the same person on both occasions.

The direction of the play was wonderful; Dale always does a great job, with a good pace, plenty of fun and emotion. The cast managed to conquer the Yorkshire accent very well, even toffee-nosed Celia came out with a wonderful ‘gob full’ of vernacular.

Except for the aforementioned minor technicalities, the cast captured all of the emotions from sadness to hilarity with skill. Sharon Menzies was outstanding, her enthusiasm boosted the other players and the fun flowed through. The audience loved it.

This was an entertaining show, and if you haven’t seen ‘Calendar Girls’ in the past, try and catch it, you will have a most enjoyable night, saucy (but no real nudity). At Stirling, you can always be assured of a warm welcome.