Calendar Girls

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.

Baring their souls…and bodies

I love it when a playwright can make me laugh out loud and shed a tear, both in the same show. And that’s what special about Calendar Girls: There are many opportunities to laugh out loud, and there is a jolt where you need to reach for your Kleenex. There is also a moment of triumph, where a young woman comes into her own, and several instances of clear insight.

This production of Calendar Girls on the main stage at London’s Grand Theatre easily lives up to the well-written script. Six beautiful women, with a strong supporting cast, have done justice to this true story.

The members of the Women’s Institute in the small town of Knapely, England, meet to hear guest speakers on topics such as the story of broccoli or show their baking and marmalade at the local fair. When Annie’s husband, John, dies of leukemia, she and her friend Chris complain of how uncomfortable they found the settee in the relatives’ room at the hospital. Chris decides to organize a fundraiser to buy a new couch, and instead of the usual calendar of Yorkshire churches or bridges, she convinces the W.I. ladies to pose for nude photos in an attempt to improve calendar sales.

Obviously there is great humour in this story, with the W.I. members overcoming prudish ideas and conquering their fears of what the town will think of them baring it all. But even more wonderful is the story of dealing with grief and how friendship can survive differences.

Amazingly, the audience is fully present at the photo shoot. These women of a certain age bare it all. But don’t worry; all poses are cautiously and tastefully done with the props strategically placed. In fact, the careful prop placement adds to the comedy.

Brigitte Robinson as ringleader Chris shows her character’s stubborn side and also gives us an interesting interpretation when the attention starts going to her head. Helen Taylor as the grieving widow Annie pulls at our heart strings as she takes on this project while dealing with her loss. Sarah Machin Gale nearly steals the show as Ruth, the young wife who has to summon up her courage to join the photo shoot, and then finds inner strength to change her life. It’s interesting to see Machin Gale in a somewhat servile role after her strong presentation of Julie Child last year. She is a powerful actor and I hope we see more of her.

Burgandy Code, a favourite at the Grand, is perfect as Celia, the attractive young woman who leaves the snobby country club set to join the W.I. Jessie, the retired school teacher, is portrayed flawlessly by Donna Belleville. Her feisty spirit adds to the humour. Seana-Lee Wood is good as Cora, the vicar’s daughter and organist who is struggling to be a respectable mum.

The supporting cast members round out the play very well, making for a enjoyable night out. It’s a heart-warming and funny story, well-presented.