With COVID-19 making the endless 24-hour news cycles at the moment, an uplifting story of love, friendship with six fearless women at its core is just what the doctor ordered. And that is precisely what Neptune Theatre delivers in the feel-good comedy Calendar Girls, currently on stage at Fountain Hall.
Based on the 2003 film by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth, Calendar Girls tells the story of the Women’s Institute (WI) of Yorkshire, who created a calendar featuring themselves in traditional WI undertakings like baking and gardening. The twist here, though, is that behind the strategically placed cakes and flowers, the women are nude.
A huge success, the real-life calendar and the women behind it became an international phenomenon. Ultimately raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in its original printing, over the years, the calendar has gone on to raise millions for cancer research and spawned countless copycats.
The long set-up in act one culminates with the actual photoshoot, and it is in these all too fleeting minutes that the women on stage come to life. Their passionate energy in knowing they are doing something a bit naughty while doing something good, is infectious. If we didn’t need to know what happens after the printing of the calendar, this would have been the perfect ending.
And while this concretely linear re-telling of this its story may lack any real tension, this production makes up for it with a heart as big as the buns used by one of the women to cover her privates in a photo.
But what makes this outing of one of Britain’s fastest-selling plays and a favourite for theatre companies worldwide for more than a decade, comes by way of the stellar cast director Jeremy Webb has assembled to play the women at the centre of this story. They all appear to be having the time of their life, and that enthusiasm oozes well beyond the footlights.
Marlane O’Brien, Francine Deschepper and Genevieve Steele provide some beautiful comedic moments as the ex-teacher Jessie, the golf-playing trophy wife Celia and no-nonsense Marie respectively. Sharleen Kalayil’s note-perfect Ruth begins with a requisite hesitancy but gets one of the biggest reactions of the evening as she comes into her own during a showdown with her husband’s mistress.
The men, while taking second fiddle here, provide excellent support. Zach Faye brings a very funny nervousness to his role as the photographer, and Jim Fowler and Daniel Liliford make the most of their time on stage as the husbands to the two central women.
It is Martha Irving and Shelley Thompson, though, who is the real heartbeat of this show as best friends Chris and Annie. These two veteran actors are at the top-of-their game here with a genuine connection. And even as their relationship begins to crumble following the success of the calendar, they remind us of the real power of friendship.
John Dinning’s wonderfully detailed set morphs from the stately Women’s Institute meeting hall to the magical beauty of its hidden garden. It ultimately becomes the backdrop to an emotional ending that does an impressive job in summing up the play’s themes without feeling maudlin. Dinning is also responsible for the props used during the women’s photoshoot, and under Webb’s direction and these talented actors, it is one of the funniest scenes you will see on stage all year.
Under Webb’s direction and the fearlessness of its cast, the Neptune Theatre production of Calendar Girls refuses to viewed as a relic from another time. As we continue to grapple with the often discouraging issues right now, it is an essential reminder there is still humanity and friendship, real friendship, can go a long way. And for that, we should be grateful.
And even though the media continues to portray large gatherings as scary propositions at the moment, the transformative power of theatre beckons. Just be sure to wash your hands. Often.
Calendar Girls adapted for the stage by Tim Firth based on the Miramax Motion Picture by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth. Directed by Jeremy Webb. A Neptune Theatre production on stage at Fountain Hall (1593 Argyle St, Halifax) until March 29. Visit neptunetheatre.com for tickets and information.