Calendar Girls

A post-feminist Dirty Dozen, with lots of buns on display... iced, of course 

You don't often get to witness scenes of female nudity on a stage in Belfast without a good old-fashioned religious blockade outside. Yet here I am, reviewing it for an arts website. Either times have changed, the ornate facade of the Opera House is a deceptive cover for such debauch, or nobody with a hotline to the Lord would begrudge such a warm, fuzzily benevolent play, regardless of the oodles of flesh on display.

Yes, Calendar Girls, the stage play, has hit town. It is causing something of a stir within the auditorium tonight. The assembled cast, you see, is like a Who’s Who of soap and comedy actors over the past 30 years. Part of the fun is working out which autumnal bloom belongs in which show. Rula Lenska, Ruth Madoc, that angry woman who used to be on Emmerdale, and even Todd from Corrie and one of the McGann brothers appear in this TV Quick first 11.

They’re lead by that most pert of Loose Women Lynda Bellingham. She plays Chris – the bolshie best friend who gets the girls to whip off their kit for that infamous alternative Women’s Institute Calendar. That infamy means the story is familiar enough. Middle-aged women from small Yorkshire village get naked for a charity calendar. Humour and pathos ensues.

Writer Tim Firth is no slouch when it comes to pithy dialogue and there are jokes aplenty about the prudish, and very white, attitudes of the Women’s Institute. It is never ill-spirited though. The play shows a clear fondness for the eccentricities and proclivities of the nice ladies who knit and give talks on the history of the tea towel. As Bellingham’s Chris says at one point: 'If more people joined the Women’s Institute, there’d be less need for hallucinogenic drugs.'

At times, the varieties of ham on display here would out-do a Serrano curing shed. The 'chirpy' turn by Deena Payne (Viv in Emmerdale) as single mum Cora beggars belief. A little mugging can sometimes go a long way.

Yet at the same time, it is frankly glorious to see a surprisingly matronly Ruth Madoc turn to the audience like she’s been shot. She regains just enough composure to chew up every line, like the barely digestible syllables are stuck in her gullet.

The light relief is in contrast to the moving exploration of friendship and loss in the quiet reflective moments between various cast members. The central, and lovely idea of the play is that little people are prepared to do selfless things for friendship and a greater good. It is powerfully expressed by the cast, whether they’re being silly, pompous or even a little mawkish.

Jan Harvey (the posh one from Howards Way folks) plays Annie, who loses her husband John to cancer and gets the ladies of the Knapely WI to think outside their frocks. Her depiction of remaining upbeat through grief is actually rather good, subtle even. Her nicely realised, if slightly predictable relationship arc with Bellingham’s Chris (the Helen Mirren role in the movie) drives the narrative and gets us to, ahem, the meat of the play.

The nudity is handled with a comic bravado that really milks any discomfort the audience may have about such unseemly revelations. One practically silent comedy routine involving the Amazonian Lenska, a couple of iced buns and a funny look from Lynda Bellingham is funny to the point of rupture.

The cast are clearly having a time of it and the big ‘reveal’ of each actor is done with compelling warmth, humour and sensitivity. The words 'hmm very tasteful' apply even after the uber-buxom comedienne Debbie Chazen exposes a rogue nipple whilst reclining on the kitchen table.

Special mention must go to the veteran actor June Watson (Z-Cars, The Bill and Doctors) as the waspish yet warm-hearted retired teacher Jessie. She doesn’t just steal every scene she’s in, she picks its pockets and check for gold fillings too. It is a consummate comic acting performance. In spite of the obvious tragedy and drama going on about her, this is the role you walk away remembering.

Cancer is the spectre hanging over the events in Calendar Girls, but it never spoils the party. Rather it’s a 'sleekit, shitty, conniving' disease,  kept at a disdainful arm’s length throughout. The denouement, in spite of the preceding tragedy is a big life-affirming two fingers to the disease and a thumbs up to those who continue to live through it and fight it every day.

By the end, you leave feeling like you’ve been emotionally mugged by a knitted cup of hot chocolate with big fat marshmallow pieces bobbing in it. All the more so when you remember that it is 'based on a true story'.

In spite of the predominantly female audience at opening night. it would be putting the 'cur' into curmudgeonly to say that Calendar Girls is a ‘girls’ show. It’s so much more than that. There is enough wit and warmth for even the most emotionally illiterate of males to be able to sound out the difficult bits.

In fact, it occurs to this male reviewer that Calendar Girls is in effect, a modern, post-feminist version of the Magnificent Seven, or perhaps the Dirty Dozen is more apt, given the circumstances....