Calendar Girls

Chris: Hilary Cordery

Annie: Julie Binysh

Cora: Sue Williams

Ruth: Emma Kerby-Evans

Celia: Margaret Tully

Jessie: Kay O’Dea

Marie: Jane Buckland

Lady Cravenshire/Brenda Hulse: Jan Greenhough

Elaine: Laura Kenward

John: Steve Williams

Lawrence/Liam: Tom Collins

Rod: Mike Savill

Maybe it should be called Calendar WARS. Since Samuel French, the publishers, decided to release the rights to Calendar Girls for amateur performance

for one year only, there have been over 950 applications to perform it. It seems like everybody and his uncle (or her aunty) is in a production somewhere in the country. And knowing AmDram to be pretty rivalrous at the best of times, this has led to some clashes between local drama groups.

So, why has BLT thrust its hand into the flame? Well, the film makes it popular, of course; it’s fresh meat and it has a predominantly female cast. But maybe most significantly, the cosy world of the Women’s Institute is known to so many across Middle England, if not at first hand then via stereotypes as typified by Hyacinth Bucket and the Sunday night offerings on the telly. The humble church hall (of which the Bromley area is so well furnished) is the scene of most of the action in Calendar Girls. Tony Jenner’s set was a simple, uncluttered space enabling furniture to be brought on and off swiftly, allowing the pace to build. And build it did! The actors who made up our six saucy sunflowers were a textbook example of what ensemble acting should be: energetic; overlapping dialogue; alwaysin character, especially when not speaking; plenty of pace and listening without anticipating – one of the hardest things to maintain in acting.

The plot is simple: members of a local branch of the WI produce a calendar featuring themselves nude (but not naked!) to raise funds for charity. But the idea goes global and they find themselves holding a tiger by the tail. The success of the enterprise threatens their friendship. The instigator, Chris, was played with relentless energy by Hilary Cordery. She gave her character a fine balance of minxishness and responsibility that made the whole story believable. Bright and inventive but, as a humble florist in a remote Yorkshire village, she was unable to give full rein to her talents. Her release was her childlike sense of adventure and humour. Hilary showed us the world through Chris’s eyes brilliantly and carried the audience along with her. The bit where she won the baking competition by entering a Marks & Spencers Victoria Sponge was genuinely Hilary-ous (see what I did there?)!

Chris’s right-hand man Annie, was played by Julie Binysh, the perfect partner-incrime for Chris. Just as fun-loving, but maybe lacking the full audacity of Chris, Annie provided the thoughtful counsel needed to keep Chris on track when the whole escapade grows beyond manageability. Julie does the sobering influence really well; her performance as Lucienne in last year’s A Flea In Her Ear was equally accomplished. The rest of the Gang of Six were Kay O’Dea as the cynical and taciturn schoolteacher Jessie, sternly resisting the nonsense of the modern world; Sue Williams as the feisty church organist, Cora, wringing the blues out of Jerusalem; newcomer to BLT Margaret Tully as Celia, the louche, glamorous, vodka-swilling, femme fatale socialite (her entrance in pink dressing gown with matching golf bag and accessories was a wonderful visual gag!) and Emma Kerby-Evans, as the downtrodden Ruth, who of course, becomes empowered by the scheme and regains her self-respect in a dignified but scathing confrontation with her husband’s bit-on-theside, Elaine – a superbly hilarious Laura Kenward in a lovely cameo performance. These six beautifully portrayed the bond of friendship between them that was the warm heart of this production.

The famous ‘getting their kit off’ scene was exquisitely directed; not an easy task to do. As author Tim Firth says: “Should we see anything we oughtn’t, the whole scene will deflate like a souflée on which the oven door has been opened too quickly.”  Quite. Director Paul Campion gave two actors photographer’s screens as masks and on cue, these were removed, revealing a coyly-poised calendar girl, deshabillé, with her WI specialised skill hiding her naughty bits (baking, knitting, fruit jam etc.).

The second half dealt with the fall-out of the situation: originally intended to be a small-scale fund raiser for a settee for the cancer hospice, the calendar takes off like a rocket and the WI branch’s profile goes stratospheric. The girls’ new-found fame catapults them into a world of celebrity and lucrative offers of TV appearances beckon. Chris takes to the high-flying world like a duck to water but the others, less so. I felt this part of the play sagged a bit; perhaps inevitably, because the roller-coaster pace of the first half could not be maintained without burning itself out. I think this was due to a) the plot – having achieved their success, there was nowhere as exciting to go now;
b) the writing struggles to equal the pzazz of the first half and
c) the knock-on effect upon the acting and directing. Without such a clear track of where the story was going, some of the performances lacked clarity and I noticed the dreaded ‘all in a line’ stage grouping occurring a couple of times. But I found the closing scene of the play absolutely wonderful: mimicking flowers themselves, the girls performed a synchronised Tai Chi ballet amongst a field of sunflowers.

The light slowly faded on Chris and Annie as they were locked in an embrace of girlie bonding. Truly touching. And let’s not forget the non-calendar girls: Jan Greenhough effortlessly doubled as two characters who could not be further apart in so many ways: the uppercrust Lady Cravenshire, queihte refeihned and cultured and the ridiculous and slightly disturbing Brenda Hulse, a kind of female Compo from Last Of The Summer Wine who lectured on broccoli and the History of The Tea towel. Jane Buckland as the formidable chairwoman of the branch. Her resounding victory over Ruth in an imaginary badminton match was a highlight. And Laura Kenward, already mentioned, as the excrutiatingly patronising makeup girl. They all added their own magic to the show.

The boys didn’t let the side down either: it was great to see Mike Savill back at BLT again after his fine performance here in Glengarry Glen Ross in 2010. He provided good, solid support in the somewhat limited role as Rod, Chris’s other half.Tom Collins made the most of his doubled roles as Lawrence, the local photographer who takes the happy snaps and the colourful Liam, the oily TV director from down south. But the Man Of The Match must be Steve Williams, who played cancer victim John, Annie’s husband. Steve portrayed the stoicism and bravery of John as his condition slowly deteriorates in a way that I found very moving. His positivity was wonderfully understated and never veered into sentimentality. Although John dies quite early on in the play, Steve gave the character a presence that resonated throughout the whole show.

 Calendar Girls was a resounding success of a production that more than justified its sell-out run. Paul Campion and his wonderful cast obviously worked very hard on this production and it showed. Any other company wanting to stage this play will find the standard set pretty high by BLT.

– Stevie Hughes