Last year’s Chichester Festival stage version of the plucky Brit flick about the ladies of a West Yorkshire Women’s Institute doing their own “Pirelli calendar” to raise money for leukaemia research has been a sell-out success on tour and has opened in the West End to a record-breaking advance.

The cast come bellowing on to the stage - why are they shouting at us, you wonder? - being outspoken and cheeky, exhaustingly full of character and bonhomie. But Hamish McColl’s production, once you’ve made a deal with the relentless coarseness of the acting, settles into a perfectly agreeable rhythm and is in fact considerably improved since last autumn.

The second act has been tightened up, the shooting of the near-nude, not naked, poses at the end of the first act has acquired a fairly decent comic momentum, Robert Jones’ colourful design is cosily reassuring, and the central stand-off between Lynda Bellingham’s attention-seeking florist’s wife and Patricia Hodge’s beautifully glum widow – her husband’s demise has prompted the charity action – is now far less irritating.

Tim Firth’s play – based on his own Miramax film script with Juliette Towhidi – makes more theatrical impact in the proscenium arch, so that the opening and closing Tai-chi routines on the hillside have a complementary physical dimension to the fluttering down of the letters of support and the sun flower motif of seeds in a packet and stalks on the stage, popping up like magic in a blaze of sunlight at the end.

The photo-shoot is elegantly and amusingly done, dressing gowns whipped off among the iced buns and tea cakes after Sian Phillips’ regal, retired school-teacher stipulates “no front bottoms.” Julia Hills’ reluctant Ruth – whose husband’s “playing away” is neatly tied into the plot late on – springs her own special surprise on top of the piano, where Elaine C Smith’s rather magnificent outsized Cora bares her back for the cause.

Cutest of all, Hodge pops up in the kitchen hatch carefully displayed behind a tea pot while husky-voiced Bellingham risks most by flashing a fleshy backside draped in what looks like a red floral tribute stolen from the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.

Brigit Forsyth as the chairwoman makes the most of her priggishness and snobbery, and Gary Lilburn and Gerard McDermott are still suitably meek and mild as the menfolk reps. It all makes for a fairly good popular night out, and I may not be in so much dread after all of the inevitable musical, probably the story’s best potential manifestation.

- Michael Coveney

NOTE: The following TWO STAR review dates from September 2008 and this production’s original run at Chichester Festival Theatre, prior to its national tour and West End transfer.

It’s five years since Nigel Cole’s warm-hearted movie about ladies “of a certain age” stripping for charity hit the large screen, and now playwright Tim Firth has adapted his own script (co-written with Juliette Towhidi) for the large stage. The film straggled badly in the latter part, with an outing to Los Angeles in search of show business big time.

That’s all gone now, mercifully, and the new stripped down, nearly nude (not naked), naughty-but-nice version, directed by Hamish McColl of the Right Size, gained the approval of an indulgent Chichester opening night audience, which included the original calendar girls themselves, smartly turned out in black cocktail dresses with sunflower lapel badges.

Personally, I find the whole enterprise faintly nauseating and too cute by half, but the charm of the cast goes a long way to neutralising my grumpiness. Annie (Patricia Hodge, sexiest of all the dames) loses her husband to leukaemia and the girls at the Women’s Institute in a Yorkshire village, led by Lynda Bellingham’s raucous Chris, decide to raise funds for cancer research by posing bare-assed for the calendar.

As in the film, the comic highlight is the sequence of snapshots among the iced buns and tea pots in the village hall, though I rather miss the lovely counterpoint of timid husbands gathering in the pub like expectant fathers. The girls manage to be cautious and coy while claiming to be outrageous, a clever trick that never quite compensates for the sneaking desire for one of them at least to simply throw all decorum out the window.

So we have Gaynor Faye as Celia juggling her appendages behind the iced buns with cherry nipples, Elaine C Smith as Cora exposing an upper torso rear view while seated at the piano and Julia Hills’ nervy Ruth lying like an odalisque among a tub of oranges. The trouble is that everyone’s taking so much trouble to cover all angles that you give up expecting the worst, or indeed the best. The show turns into Nell Dunn’s Steaming without the honesty of careless rapture.

Perhaps it should have been a musical. The best moments belong to Bellingham sporting an outrageous floral thong at the end, just before designer Robert Jones floods the stage with sunflowers on stalks. And there is at least plenty to relish in the sharp, stylish performances of Sian Phillips as the elegant Jessie and Brigit Forsyth and Joan Blackham as disapproving WI stalwarts.

Calendar Girls is a good story, but isn’t it now over-familiar?

- Michael Coveney