Calendar Girls has been the runaway success of the last couple of years, attracting the same demographic who are currently laughing and crying at Meryl Streep in the hit romantic comedy for older folk, It's Complicated. The reason for this is obvious, as Tim Firth's script is very much in the mould of Victoria Wood. Add an inspirational true story and you have all the ingredients for a hit play.

It's a shame then that of late, the casting news overshadows the true point of the piece. The real life Calendar Girls hit the headlines because their bodies were not like the women of Wisteria Lane. These are not spoilt Desperate Housewives; they are a group of friends from the Womens' Institute. But recently, we have seen Kelly Brook, Jerry Hall and Gemma Atkinson (returning here for the tour) dropping their cardigans in the name of art in the West End production. These women really do not fit the mould, although they clearly get bums on seats.

The narrative remains heart-rending, as we follow Annie (Jan Francis), Chris (Lynda Bellingham), Jessie (Judith Barker), Celia (Atkinson) and Ruth (Hannah Waterman) and their attempts to raise money for a new couch for a leukemia ward at the local hospital. This is made more personal by the fact that Annie's husband John has the disease. Fast forward and Chris decides that the best way to raise money is to update the WI calendar by getting their kits off, hence the now famous line: "We're going to need considerably bigger buns."

Thanks to Firth's gently amusing script, each scene is punctuated with a line designed to leave you with a smile on your face. The cast are all game and seem to have chemistry but their abilities are clearly mixed. Barker has genuine comic timing and knows how to deliver a line, leaving you in stitches every time. Unfotunately Dean plays Sharon Watts with a Northern accent, Waterman hams it up too much and Atkinson simply says the lines, leaving them hanging in mid air, as comedy is clearly not her forte.

Bellingham has done this so many times, so is therefore credible, but even she looks a tad tired with the material. And that's the problem really, the concept is now far from fresh, so it has all become about that scene which would now benefit from being placed in act two. Once the ladies have stripped, the thin plot seems stretched and the poignant moments lose a bit of their original impact.

Poor sound problems also blight this production at times, as some of the dialogue is completely inaudible. Calendar Girls is a show with its heart in the right place and the quick-fire humour still makes you smile and all is not lost,  as Barker gives you a great reason to see the show for her wonderful timing and Francis presses all the right emotional buttons.

Even so, I cannot help thinking that this maybe this is one tour too far, as the premise now lacks any genuine surprises. Although, if the chuckling audience on the night I attended are anything to go by, these girls will be returning soon, so you better mark your calendar again.

- Glenn Meads


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