Tim Firth’s comic and touching dramatization of the true story of the ladies of Rylstone Women’s institute and their fundraising phenomenon became the hugely successful 2003 film The Calendar Girls, grossing in excess of $96 million worldwide. It, in turn, spawned a stage version, premiering at the Chichester festival in 2008, prior to transferring to the west end stage, and which is now the most successful play ever to tour the country.
Firth’s gentle humour and knowing observational style, very much in the Victoria Wood mould, is a perfect fit for the array of strong and feisty WI ladies (all with emotional back stories), and a cast packed full of grande-dames of the stage and television. The story is a powerful and heart-rending one. Prompted by the untimely death of John, her husband, Annie (Sue Holderness) and fellow unconventional WI member Chris (Lesley Joseph) decide to raise money to buy a new couch for the leukemia unit at the local hospital. They decide the best way to do this is by creating a WI calendar with a difference, and set about convincing their friends to get their kit off.
Lesley Joseph plays Chris, a woman who only joined the WI to impress her mother-in-law, and with the best of the witty one-liners leads a strong cast (which includes the incomparable Ruth Madoc and Emmerdale titan Deena Payne), in a full-bodied performance. Sue Holderness is surprisingly touching as the grieving Annie, and Helen Fraser enjoys her role as Jessie, the school teacher, who only agrees to being photographed if there are guaranteed no front bottoms! However, top marks go to Kacey Ainsworth who, as Ruth the shy and nervous lady with the cheating husband, steals the laughs in a very funny portrayal, especially in the sublime photo-shoot scene.
Talking of ‘that scene’ - it is very tastefully and creatively done, with excellent use of strategically placed props and lighting to hide the ladies blushes, especially those ‘considerably bigger buns’ required by the fulsome Celia (Kathryn Rooney).
Indeed there are some nice touches, under the skilful direction of Jack Ryder, including the shower of letters that descend on the ladies after their calendar takes off, and the emerging sunflowers – John’s favourite plant and the symbol of the Calendar Girls – at the end, which ensure that you don’t lose sight of what the calendar is really all about.
Playing to packed and appreciative houses at the Pavilion, Bournemouth until 6 August, a new cast then takes on the seventh leg of the tour, which continues until the end of December. With warmth, good humour and humanity, plus a seemingly endless supply of actresses-of-a-certain-age willing to ‘bare-their-all’ in a good cause, the Girls look set to run and run.