Review: Calendar Girls – Regent Theatre, Ipswich

‘And did those feet in ancient time. Walk upon England’s mountains green’. Well on the green hills of Yorkshire it’s not feet that concern a group of courageous women but more revealing parts of the anatomy.

Baring (nearly) all for a calendar isn’t the normal perceived behavior for a WI group but when one members husband dies from leukemia it provides a catalyst for a fundraising campaign that would grab, not only Yorkshire but the world’s attention. The resulting calendar and follow up merchandise raising over £3million (and rising) for Leukemia and lymphoma research.

Tim Firth’s stage adaptation of his screenplay has in itself become a key fundraising raising tool in the Calendar Girls brand, with a proportion of each ticket sale boosting the funds.

On the big screen Calendar Girls turned the story into a tale of celebrity driving friends apart but on stage it is the personalities of the WI ladies comes to the fore.

As is repeated in village halls up and down the country a diverse group of women are brought together, often with surprising results. There’s dynamo Chris, who only joined the WI to please her mother in law, but, who has little time for the traditions of the organisation. Cora the church organist and vicars daughter balances her sense of duty with the challenges of being a single mother. Ruth the desperately shy lady who wants so much to belong to avoid her falling apart home life and Celia the glamorous outsider who smuggles vodka in her country club golf bag.

As they say ‘all human life is here’ but when Annie’s husband John loses his battle with leukemia the group become closer than ever.

Jack Ryder’s direction, based on Hamish McColl’s original direction, makes great use of Tim Firth’s light and shade. There are moments here of all out laughter suddenly quelled into silence by the realities of illness but despite the loss and grief this is a surprisingly life-affirming and uplifting evening.

Often touring theatre productions don’t quite match the original casting, but for Calendar Girls the producers have continually refreshed the cast with strong casting and here is no exception.

Leading the company is an on-form Lynda Bellingham, her feisty Chris a non stop whirlwind who leads the women into casting aside their bras in the name of charity, however, underneath the bravado she is using the charity as an escape from the grim reality of her own business failing.

Contrasting the bravado of Chris Jan Harvey’s Annie is more reserved, consumed by a quiet dignified grief. It is a strong central pairing and there is real chemistry between the two women.

Much like the original Calendar Girls themselves though this is a group effort, with a true ensemble feeling and impressive performances throughout. A musical Jennifer Ellison as Cora, a beautiful comic turn from Debbie Chazen as Ruth and well observed character work from June Watson and Rula Lenska as Jessie and Celia all bring the WI ladies to life.

The men here certainly play second fiddle but there is a nice nervous performance from Bruno Langley as amateur photographer Lawrence, having to manage both Belgian Buns and a group of vodka fuelled nude models. His return in the second act as advertising executive Liam though is less successful, not markedly different enough from Lawrence. Joe McGann gives a dignified portrayal of John, a man resigned to his fate but one that will face that darkness with courage.

There are moments of delightful stage craft here, the sheer exuberance of the calendar shoot drawing the whole audience into a world of conspiracy and support, but it never detracts from what is at its heart a deeply emotional and inspiring story. The second half does seem slightly anti-climatic after the bravado of the first act but one gets the feeling that these ladies may need ‘considerably bigger buns’ for some time yet.

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