22nd August 2013
Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds
Type of Production
Louise Travis Assisted by Lou Petch
Author: Julie Petrucci
Tim Firth's Calendar Girls is based on the true story of the ladies of the Rylstone Women’s Institute in Yorkshire (although they are called Knapeley WI in the play) and how they set out to raise funds to replace a sofa on the cancer ward of a local hospital to commemorate a friend’s husband. They decide to produce and sell their own “art calendar”, in which their nakedness is tastefully obscured by a range of WI activities.
Whilst Calendar Girls has some serious overtones, it is definitely set in comedy vein. With characters as strong as Yorkshire tea, thrifty one-liners and acerbic put-downs, it is very funny but it still manages to maintain a sensitivity that is warm and gentle and at times very moving.
In the hands of an inexperienced cast and director, the pathos could easily be overwhelmed and lost, however, given the understanding and empathy of the director (Louise Travis) and the principal cast members, the comedy and seriousness were handled with balance and sensitivity.
The partnership of John (Phil Amtower) and Annie Clarke (Joyce Amtower) made a strong impression. Their care for each other shone through. John’s progression from his diagnosis through decline to his inevitable death was well-handled without being over-sentimental or mawkish and Annie’s sense of loss was palpable. This was a moving portrayal by these two actors in partnership.
In this they were ably supported by the ladies of the WI. As the play progresses it transpires that many have their own demons to face. Cora, the church organist and daughter of the vicar, labours with the guilt of abandoning her out-of-wedlock daughter. Celia drinks to cope with her husband’s obsession with golf, her own obsession with status, and her ostracisation by the golf club ladies. Ruth struggles with her desperate desire to please others, and win back her philandering husband, whilst Marie showed the frustration in her inability to shepherd her anarchic WI members, and burns with a driving ambition to run a premier league Women’s Institute. Retired school teacher Jessie seems to be the only of their number that has found any sense of inner peace.
Deborah Croll excelled as the anarchic and slightly dippy Cora, delivering a first class characterisation. Claire Greener was completely believable in the guise of Celia as she changed from golf club Harpy to gain acceptance as one of the girls. Rachelle Curtis captured the very essence of the ingratiating Ruth, nicely managing the balance between keenness and sadness, and Julie Baxter delivered an appropriately stuck-up Marie (compliments on an excellent stage faint). Throughout all of the turmoil, like a lighthouse in a storm, was Jessie, played with dignity and excellently timed delivery by Jackie Strahm. Then we had Sally Donaghey as Chris the organising force behind the calendar, and the catalyst that drives each of the WI team to act well beyond their comfort zone, this was a first-class performance, full of wit and energy
Of the rest of the cast, strong performances from Joan Abbs (Lady Cravenshire), Colin Musgrove (Rod) and Lizi Long (Elaine) were matched by that of Chris Strahm who was impressive as photographer Lawrence. Alison Webb (Brenda, the broccoli expert) was making her stage debut and she could not have failed to have gained much from those more experienced members of the cast, which was augmented by Heather Couch (Liam) and Sheena Moore (Mags).
These were well delivered performances. That the first few scenes would have benefitted from more volume and faster cue-bite, is hair-splitting given the timing, delivery, and energy of the rest of the play. As for the nude scene, it was all rather tastefully done with well choreographed movement and teamwork.
The set design worked perfectly and looked absolutely right. The hill and the sunflowers at the end was stunning and the sound effects were excellent.
I must admit however that I was fazed by the “tv advertising scene” as it seemed to be played totally for laughs which, I felt, was out of place in the scheme of things. There also seemed to be a problem with the lighting cues once or twice, or maybe the opening Tai Chi movement was meant to be in the dark.
All in all this production succeeded in conveying the celebration of kinship and camaraderie, of a challenge embraced, and of the fact that ordinary people working together can achieve extraordinary things. An excellent and poignant evening of theatre.