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Calendar Girls (Tour - Manchester)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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The story behind the 1998 'Alternative WI Calendar' always had the elements built into it that would attract newspaper stories, playwrights and the movie industry. But don't worry: this latest production doesn't suffer by comparison to Hollywood.

Annie is a Women's Institute regular. When her husband, John, finally loses his battle with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, her best friend Chris decides that they should raise enough money to replace the uncomfortable sofa in the Relatives Room at Skipton Hospital where he was treated – by making an alternative, nude, WI calendar. The results are both touching and funny.

Jan Harvey as Annie and Lynda Bellingham as Chris both give outstanding performances, making their emotions and motivations completely believable. Annie's sadness contrasts Chris' vivacity perfectly. John is played with subtlety and commitment by Joe McGann; what a shame that the plot only gives him a presence in the first few scenes.

The other WI Ladies – Cora (Deena Payne), Jessie (Sue Watson), Celia (Sue Holderness) and Ruth (Lisa Riley) – all shine in their roles as well; this is a true ensemble piece. Ruth Madoc as Marie, the leader of the WI, is clearly in her element (and sounding like Su Pollard, disconcertingly). Other roles are ably taken by John Labanowski, Jane Lambert, Kevin Sacre and Camilla Dallerup.

Tim Firth's script is stunning, of course and director Jack Ryder brings the comedy and tragedy elements in it to an equal balance. Robert Jones' simple but effective set provides the perfect backdrop.

In real life, the calendar girls went on to raise millions and continue their fund-raising work to this day; the fictional version is just as long-lived. This is a show which deserves every plaudit going and if you love a good story, you won't go wrong here.

- Helen Jones.

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