Calendar Girls by Tim Firth | The Mill at Sonning | Review

This is not the musical, which must rank amongst the worst shows I have ever seen in the West End, opening with a miserable tune about the characters surviving ‘one more year in Yorkshire’ – Yorkshire people love Yorkshire, a point which thankfully comes across in this production of the play. The film came first (2003), then the play (2008), then the musical (2015). All were ultimately inspired by an actual story, following the death of Angela Baker’s husband John in February 1998 after a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Members of the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute participated in a nude photoshoot, with the images printed in a calendar, the sales of which were intended to raise money for a new settee in the ward where the late John Baker was treated.

Calendar Girls. Sarah Whitlock Debbie Arnold Basienka Blake Nataloe Ogle Rachel Fielding. Photo by Andreas Lambis.
Calendar Girls. Sarah Whitlock Debbie Arnold Basienka Blake Nataloe Ogle Rachel Fielding. Photo by Andreas Lambis.

The calendar was released in April 1999 (I have no idea what the reasoning was behind launching a calendar in April), and twenty-five years on, this production provides audiences with an opportunity to cast their minds back to the media frenzy at the time, or indeed to appreciate the story for the first time. There is a degree of creative licence going on (the wider Women’s Institute, was more supportive of their efforts than the script in this show asserts), and I found the dialogue to be credible and naturalistic. As one of the ladies points out, nude isn’t the same as naked. Some creative and hilarious ways of preserving the ladies’ modesty made for a highly entertaining long scene at the end of the first act, and mercifully we aren’t subjected to photographs for all twelve months being taken in real time.

There is, of course, much to be said for people who aren’t stereotypical fashion models posing for a calendar of any description, and in the quarter-century since ‘The Alternative WI Calendar’ came out, attitudes towards capturing ‘perfect’ images have changed significantly, and for the better. Not even royals can get away with touching up photographs these days in a world where authenticity is prized. And yet, Calendar Girls doesn’t feel like a period piece – the anxieties of certain characters such as Ruth (Ciara Janson) are understandable, the snobbery from certain quarters only to be expected, and there’s a wonderful moment in which retired teacher Jessie (Sarah Whitlock) reveals herself to young photographer Lawrence (Oscar Cleaver, making his professional debut) in more ways than one.

There are touches of dramatic tension, with a hint of the consequent demands for further photo opportunities following the media frenzy of the calendar being reprinted several times over due to public interest. Chris (Rachel Fielding) is often pushing the boat out in terms of getting more media coverage for and of the calendar girls, but her unilateral actions lead to disagreement among her peers. Marie (Elizabeth Elvin), the leader of the local Women’s Institute (WI), is both likeable and an authoritative presence.

The public response is portrayed by the receipt of a large number of letters to the WI branch, some of which contain deeply poignant accounts of their own relatives’ battles against cancer, though I hasten to add the production is never overly sentimental, and there are far more laughs than tears. There may not be anything new under the sun when it comes to people coming together for a common cause and realising an ambition through teamwork. That doesn’t stop this production from being a delightful and gratifying night out.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

This heartwarming and hilarious play by Tim Firth is based on a true story and the hit 2003 film.

When Annie’s husband dies of leukemia, she and her best friend Chris decide to raise funds for the local hospital. Despite raised eyebrows from the local community they create a calendar featuring themselves and their friends from the Women’s Institute…in tastefully nude poses.

As they embark on their fundraising journey over the seasons, the friends discover a newfound sense of confidence and sisterhood, breaking free from societal expectations of middle age. And as the word begins to spread, these Calendar Girls begin to turn heads and capture hearts around the world.

Destined to make you laugh, make you cry and make you blush! CALENDAR GIRLS is a glorious celebration of friendship, community, and the power of ordinary people to make a difference.

Debbie Arnold (Cora)
Basienka Blake (Celia)
Oscar Cleaver (Lawrence/Liam)
Elizabeth Elvin (Marie)
Rachel Fielding (Chris)
Kitty Harris (Elaine)
Ciara Janson (Ruth)
Natalie Ogle (Annie)
Dawn Perllman (Brenda Hulse/Lady Cravenshire)
Steven Pinder (Rod)
Andrew Ryan (John)
Sarah Whitlock (Jessie)

Creative Team:
Director: Sally Hughes
Set Designer: Terry Parsons
Costume Designer: Natalie Titchener
Lighting Designer: Matthew Biss
Sound Design: Technical Team at The Mill at Sonning
Casting: Kate Plantin CDG

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