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Review Round-up: Do Critics Get Calendar Girls?

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Despite the lack of an official press night (See The Goss, 15 Apr 2009), critics have been steadily giving their views on the West End transfer of {Calendar Girls::L1993370294} over the course of the past few days.

The production, which premiered in Chichester last September before embarking on a hugely successful national tour, has landed at the West End's Noel Coward theatre, where last night it hosted a celebrity charity gala night, attended by several of the original girls (See Today's Photos).

{Calendar Girls::L1993370294}, adapted by Tim Firth from his screenplay for the hit 2003 film, tells the real-life story of the members of a Yorkshire chapter of the Women’s Institute who decide to pose nude for a charity calendar. The cast includes Patricia Hodge, Lynda Bellingham, Sian Phillips, Elaine C Smith, Gaynor Faye, Julia Hills and Brigit Forsyth.

There was a general consensus among critics that {Calendar Girls::L1993370294}, despite its warmth and good intentions, was, in the words of The Times' Dominic Maxwell, “not quite the full monty” in dramatic terms. However, Whatsonstage.com's Michael Coveney, who also reviewed the show in Chichester, observed the production is “considerably improved” since its regional premiere, and makes for a “fairly good popular night out”. But this was about as strong as the plaudits got. For most, the “predictable” and “formulaic” structure was a problem, despite the “divine” disrobing scene and some accomplished performances from the principals.

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  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “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 ... 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.”
  • Dominic Maxwell in The Times (two stars) “If you can accept the overfamiliarity of Firth’s sitcom posse of squares, prudes, wisecrackers, bored beauties and sassy old ladies, then some of the comedy is pretty serviceable. It’s snappily directed by Hamish McColl, whose staging of the pivotal photoshoot – in which they have nothing but iced buns, balls of wool and marmalade-making equipment to maintain their dignity – is a delight. But once {Calendar Girls::L1993370294} has shown us its knickers, it hasn’t got much left to offer … Part of the show’s success is down to the way it raises issues – about sexuality, illness, middle age – that don’t get confronted enough on stage … As a story of Northerners finding themselves through revealing themselves, it’s not quite the full monty.”
  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “There must be a few, odd people - I am one - who missed the film Calendar Girls and did not realise it was inspired by a few women who have raised almost £2million for cancer research since 1999. This astonishing achievement renders any criticism of Tim Firth’s stage version of {Calendar Girls::L1993370294} unkind and perhaps superfluous since this comedy of English manners enjoys more than £1.5million of advance ticket-sales. Even so, since candour should be a critic’s constant companion, I need warn that though the show is in part very good, what a small part it proves … Yet you need watch {Calendar Girls::L1993370294} with critical faculties turned off. Far too much of it sprawls in an aimless comedy-free void. Just 25 minutes of it are divine.”
  • Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph (three stars) “When you consider from what modest beginnings this mammoth, mammary-baring phenomenon sprang ten years ago … you have to marvel … Being fascinated by the improbable chain of events, though, doesn’t mean one has to endorse this latest chapter in the story as any kind of artistic achievement. Because once you look past the originating good cause, as an evening of theatre this really is, well, pants … What does the stage version offer that a night in with the DVD and a bottle of wine can’t? Simply this: the chance to see the leading ladies gamely – and fleetingly – disrobe for those notoriously artful 'nude' poses. And frankly, that’s not enough of a selling-point. It’s not the strip-scene – carried off with teasing panache just before the interval curtain – that demeans the actresses here, it’s the script.”
  • Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times (three stars) - “While this makes it an uplifting play, it does not make it a great one. The drama is too formulaic and superficial for that, the characters’ journeys too predictable … But the heart of the story still comes over and it is hard to resist the warm, spirited performances in Hamish McColl’s production. Patricia Hodge brings grace and dignity to the widowed Annie, but also a steely determination. She is quietly touching when the letters of affected relatives drag her into another world. She is well matched by Lynda Bellingham’s caustic, ebullient Chris. There are lovely performances too from Elaine C Smith as the vicar’s daughter with the naughty tattoo and Sian Phillips as the deceptively formal ex-teacher.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet & Katie Blemler

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