The concept of a nude calendar isn’t new but replacing the typical bikini model or buff fireman with your average middle-aged Women’s Institute member is entirely novel. Based on a true story, the calendar girls of the Knapeley branch of the WI did exactly that and became international sensations for their trouble.
The Women’s Institute, the British version of the Country Women’s Association in Australia, is a community organisation that brings women together for charitable purposes, but it also forms a large part of the social networks for these women who bond over workshops, community engagement at fetes and fairs, and fundraising. Calendar Girls, as adapted by Tim Firth from the film of the same name, represents the type of tight-knit relationships fostered in the WI when telling the story of how the community, and the world, rallied around one branch’s goal to raise money for a new settee for their local hospital. When Annie’s (Peggy Leto) husband John (Brian McGann) dies of cancer, she turns to her WI friends and especially best friend Chris (Yolanda Regueira). They want to do something big and funny to raise money in John’s memory and make him proud, so they concoct the idea of a nude calendar starring themselves! It takes some coaxing, but the rest of the branch, excepting the president Marie (Deirdre Campbell), get on board and the calendar becomes a greater success than they could have ever imagined. With international attention and pressures from all angles to leverage their new fame, the central message of their mission becomes muddled, threatening the love and friendship at the heart of the WI. But, eventually, Annie and Chris clarify their perspectives and reprioritise what they have above what they’ve lost.
Director Sue Stapleton focused on the relationships that made up the Knapeley branch with quirky characterisations and a sense of continuous friendship even in the face of great changes. There were the central two of Annie and Chris but they were surrounded by other full personalities including the Vicar’s daughter and pianist Cora (Lisa Hanssens), the flirtatious golfer’s wife Celia (Maria Micallef), the fearful goodie-two-shoes Ruth (Veronica Bray-Saville), and the jaded ex-school teacher Jessie (Lyn Lee). The first act of the script covered a year in the women’s lives, including the illness and death of beloved John. Then, the second act came in a great rush as the momentum of the calendar’s success sped the women forward and away from the safety and security of their familiar church hall. Set designer David Pointon kept the action grounded in the wide, spacious hall with a piano and large arched windows while the costuming by Leone Sharp and props by Lee Wright incorporated the many varied activities the WI participated in from craft competitions to carolling to the spring fair. In particular, Ruth’s commitment to a theme, even if mistaken in the instructions, produced many laughs as she traipsed out in a myriad of festive costumes.
What stood out amongst the chaotic activities, though, were the relationships between the characters which were conveyed with warmth by the cast. Each woman had a full backstory complete with worries and dreams that the other women were earnestly invested in. Chris had money troubles that led to feelings of inadequacy, Cora had a complicated relationship with her daughter, Jessie didn’t want to be sidelined in her old age, Ruth needed to learn to stand up for herself, and Celia wanted to prove she was more than her good looks. Bray-Saville and Micallef, as Ruth and Celia respectively, gave particularly compelling performances by embodying the worries of their characters and committing to their physicality. While Leto and Regueira as best friends Annie and Chris, balanced the sometimes tricky position of being honest with your friends when they don’t want to hear it with also showing individual character development. The fun, love, and care came through most clearly in the joyful photoshoot scene as Ms January through November doffed their robes and filled the stage with laughter and encouragement.
What the real calendar girls were able to achieve was unbelievable, selling over 200,000 copies of the calendar and donating the proceeds to leukaemia and lymphoma research. What Calendar Girls reveals, though, is that they were ordinary women who loved each other and their community no matter their differences or the oddity of their fundraising ideas.
Calendar Girls is running at the Guild Theatre from May 13th – June 11th
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