Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 1st February, 2012
It is often the cry of actresses of a certain age that there are not enough parts for them, that they become invisible. This hugely successful play belies that complaint: middle-aged actresses and their parts are undeniably visible in this case!
In recent years a new genre of play has emerged specifically to address the shortage of roles for older females, it seems. Plays in this genre are all essentially the same and adhere to a very formulaic set-up. A diverse group of women come together for a common goal. In Stepping Out, it’s tap dancing. In The Naked Truth, it’s pole dancing. In The Tart And The Vicar’s Wife, it’s brothel-keeping. .. The women are differentiated by markedly different costumes and each will have a defining characteristic along the lines of Walt Disney’s dwarves. There’s the brassy one, the vulgar one, the timorous one, the prudish one… As they work towards their common goal along the way there will be tears and tantrums and much larking around. Someone will surprise us with how good they are at the activity in question. Someone else will reveal a private tragedy. Friends will fall out and be reconciled. They will all rise to the occasion and achieve the goal. It is play-writing by numbers.
This formula has been applied to the based-in-truth story of women in a Yorkshire branch of the Women’s Institute who posed nude for a best-selling calendar that raised more than enough money for a new settee in a hospital. You don’t need to know the facts – you can tell exactly what is going to happen on stage because of the formula.
As depicted here, this small Yorkshire community is peopled by wise-cracking individuals with boundless exuberance – ‘appen there’s summat in t’water – throwing punch lines around like buckshot. Even the bloke dying from leukaemia, (Joe McGann) is relentlessly funny. The spectre of cancer casts a brief shadow on all this exuberance; it is a comedy, after all, but the attempts at pathos lack punch.
The funniest sequence is the photo shoot for the calendar. Fuelled by vodka, the women soon lose their inhibitions and their dressing gowns and create a series of tableaux that are more saucy postcard than titillating burlesque. The script glosses over the fact that they are blatantly short of five months but then I suppose seeing all twelve would slow the pace considerably.
The cast throw themselves into proceedings with, guess what, exuberance. Lynda Bellingham provides much of the impetus as Chris (brassy), ably supported by June Watson as Jessie (grumpy) and Lisa Riley (fatty, self-conscious, prudish). Deena Payne (Viv Windsor off of Emmerdale) is the musical one. Jan Harvey is the sad one. Former Hi-de-Hi glockenspiel banger, Ruth Madoc is Marie, chair of the branch. She is responsible for booking speakers who give talks on such edifying topics as the history of the tea towel and the provenance of broccoli. Her performance is like a demonstration of accents of the British Isles. There is a cameo by Camilla Dallerup as a skinny beautician that improves on her recent foray as Genie of the Lamp but I couldn’t help cheering when Lisa Riley, overcoming her prudishness, tells her to fuck off. Formerly Jake off of Hollyoaks, Kevin Sacre doubles as the hospital-porter-cum-photographer and as a callous media type, but overall the cockles are warmed by the central friendship between Bellingham and Harvey. Fundamentally that is what these plays are all about: sisterhood and the friendship between women rather than forwarding any feminist agenda.
The play is like eating a box of chocolates in one go. Pleasant while it lasts if not entirely to one’s taste, but not all that nutritious when it’s over. And it is a box of chocolates with only one layer. I would like to see one of these plays subvert the formula and frustrate expectations. Calendar Girls is a reliable, crowd-pleasing confection. It’s like settling down to watch your favourite soap or sit-com. You’re in safe hands here as sure as April follows May.