It was a stroke of genius that propelled a group of WI women to international fame: having their photographs taken in the buff for a cheeky calendar has not only raised £2 million for Leukaemia Research but has spawned a hit film and now a stage version, which opened at the Noël Coward theatre last night.
The fact that the story of Calendar Girls is based on real life gives an immediate poignancy to the comedy drama being played out on stage. It was the death from cancer of John, the husband of a WI member in a small Yorkshire town, that led his wife and her friends to create a calendar to raise funds in his memory. Initially hoping to make enough to buy a settee for the cancer ward of the local hospital, the ladies’ tasteful nude poses caused such a stir in the local community that the calendar raised a far greater sum and sparked the interest of the international press.
In adapting the story for the stage, writer Tim Firth is faithful to his 2003 film, though he omits the journey to LA that the ladies took after the calendar made the headlines. Instead, the play is confined to the Yorkshire dales where the story began, and is played out on Robert Jones’s set which combines the green hills of the dales with the shabby hall where the WI ladies meet for their regular meetings.
It is the camaraderie between the women that makes Firth’s story; the WI is depicted as a Brownies for grown-ups, where the attendees thoroughly enjoy reverting to schoolgirl giggles when faced with authority, in the shape of Brigit Forsyth’s uptight WI leader Marie. Lynda Bellingham, as Chris, is the lynchpin of the group, an extrovert who is the driving force behind the calendar. Patricia Hodge gives a dignified performance as Annie, the wife of John, whose death is the catalyst for the plan. John’s memory aside, each of the six women has their moment to reveal what else drives them to bare all, whether to attract the attentions of a wayward husband, inject a much needed confidence boost or hark back to a more carefree youth.
Firth and director Hamish McColl spend some time setting the story up before the first half culminates in the shooting of the calendar photos. The bravery of the actresses on stage creates some hilarious moments, as Bellingham trusses herself up in flowers, Gaynor Faye poses with a couple of iced buns and Sian Phillips wonders exactly how much of her body two balls of wool can cover.
The shorter second half deals with the aftermath of the calendar’s publication, and, like the film, touches on the tensions in the friendship between Annie and Chris. Though, as the programme notes, there are elements of fiction in the story, there is no doubt that the friendship and the camaraderie depicted on stage is real, as is the achievement of this ordinary group of Yorkshire women – present in the first night audience – who never could have imagined getting their kit off could have caused such a furore for such a good cause.