Tag Archives: Lynda Bellingham

Female Parts

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.

A Brush with Greatness

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 21st December, 2011

The Hippodrome prides itself on staging the country’s biggest and most lavish pantomime in the country and this year is no exception. The production values are astounding in this glitzy show that mixes technical wizardry with star quality.

The big names on the poster this year are: Brian Conley as a moon-walking, water-pistolling, sing-a-long-ing, cheeky-faced Buttons – he works the crowd extremely well and it’s a big room to work; making her panto debut is the glamorous Lynda Bellingham as the Fairy Godmother – she is given plenty to do in what can be an incidental role and her lines are ripe with innuendo; but while Conley is spouting references to Timmy Mallett and the Crazy Frog, the funniest and most up-to-date material comes from Basil Brush! He moves around like a miniature, furry Davros, singing and dancing and interacting with the crowd. The operator in the box must be knackered by the end. Basil Brush is “living” proof that acts who have been around a long time can still appeal, keeping up with the times without changing the essence of what made him great in the first place. Other old-school acts could learn a lot from the little puppet with the posh voice. It is marvellous to see today’s children taking Basil to their hearts just as it is wonderful to see them being enthralled by the magic of theatre and hearing them laughing their little heads off throughout the show.

What you may think are the main characters, Cinderella and Prince Charming, are sidelined somewhat and the plot takes quite a while to get going as Conley and Bellingham dominate proceedings from the outset. This means that minor role, Dandini, is pushed out to become almost irrelevant – the business of swapping identity with the Prince is given lip service but never capitalised on. Ugly sisters, Kelly and Tulisa (Martin Ramsdin and David Robbins) have more muscle (in more than one sense). Their outfits, which I am given to believe were mainly their own design and manufacture, are outlandish and colourful, matched by their rapport and characterisations. The scene in which they force Cinderella to tear up her invitation to the ball remains one of the most dramatic and powerful moments in all panto.

So, the show takes a few detours but when the plot gets going, the Hippodrome does it very well indeed. The transformation scene is fast and flashy, ending the first act with pyrotechnics and a flying horse. The second act is more traditional in its structure; at the ball, Conley performs an outrageously funny routine involving a violin and an errant finger but the Prince and Cinders are allowed their time in the spotlight too. It is very satisfying to see the tried-and-tested routines and stage business played out so well, along with the new ingredients (as long as they don’t subvert the genre or hold up proceedings).

I am uncomfortable with live animals on stage. However enchanting their appearance and antics and no matter how kindly they may be treated, it doesn’t sit well with me to see them performing tricks in a manner outside their natural behaviour. Adults and children alike were entranced but this overly sensitive veggie prefers not to see that kind of thing.

Preferable was Conley’s interaction with kids from the audience who were brought onto the stage for questions and a giggly rendition of Old Macdonald Had A Farm. In fact, interplay with the audience as a whole was very strong. Given the scale of the auditorium, it requires a certain type of performer to keep everyone happy. Conley certainly manages that and it is a shame his kind of act is no longer fashionable in these days of TOWIE and endless dredges for “talent”. Conley needs a vehicle, and I don’t mean Buttons’s flying motorcycle, to get him back on the telly. As long as he steers clear of the schmaltzy crooning, which veers dangerously close to pub-singing, I would tune in.

For me though the evening belonged to Basil Brush. I’m glad to see he’s keeping his hand in.