Calendar Girls – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

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If it wasn’t for the fact that it’s all based on a real event, the pleasant and largely welcoming English comedy Calendar Girls, now playing at Phoenix Theatre, would seem little more than passable, lightweight fun; a modern-day update of those early, post-war black and white Ealing comedies that might have starred either Hermione Baddeley or Margaret Rutherford. Knowing it actually happened, the story suddenly has weight.

The inspiration behind the events occurred in Yorkshire, Northern England in 1998, and it’s one that on its home turf has become legend. A man called John Baker died of Leukemia at the age of only 54. John’s wife, Angela, and the ladies of the local chapter of the national Women’s Institute (referred to as simply the W.I.) decided that in John’s honor, instead of singing repeated versions of England’s unofficial anthem Jerusalem around the piano and attending more bake sales, they would spend their time raising enough money to buy a new sofa in the visitor’s lounge of the hospital where John passed away.

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Instead of making the usual pots of homemade jam, pressing flowers or baking sponge, cream-filled cakes for charity, the ladies of the W.I. approached the fund-raising event in a unique way – they all posed nude for the 1999 calendar. There would still be shots of everyone knitting, painting and doing the gardening; it’s just that they’d be naked while doing it. The success that followed took on a life of its own. Not only did the women raise enough money for a new sofa, more than three million pounds (four to almost five million dollars) went towards leukemia research, and the ladies themselves became temporary celebrities, appearing not only on several British TV talk shows but also The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Rosie O’Donnell. More calendars followed.

The play, written by Tim Firth, is not so much a re-telling of the actual event but an adaptation of the 2003 film. In order to create conflicts that never really happened, John Baker became John Clark, all the names of the ladies were changed, plus most of the issues the women had to overcome with the W.I. and each other never occurred. In fact, in reality, there was never a great deal of conflict.

The national association of the W.I. was always behind the project from the beginning – one time actress and now politician Glenda Jackson even sponsored the calendar – and there were no tense moments between the ladies who arranged the occasion. But successes without obstacles to overcome never make good stories, and Firth, who also co-wrote the film, has created moments of warm comedy, conflict and the occasional moment of tension that buoys events and keeps everything happily afloat. Plus, by keeping the ladies in Yorkshire and not taking them out of their rural environment for a trip to Hollywood for their Tonight Show appearance, a mistake the movie made, the theatrical proceedings only strengthen. As a fictional telling of a real event, the play deals with the story better than the film.

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The play gives the opportunity for some very talented women to work together, and here in Calendar Girls, Phoenix Theatre has assembled a terrific ensemble. Those ladies of the W.I. – the Arizona Valley chapter – have brought their combined years of professional experience to a production with great results. You get the feeling that not only does that sense of camaraderie work so well on stage, the fun presumably extended behind the scenes during rehearsals.

When the ladies assume the positions and perform their martial art Tai Chi health exercises silhouetted against scenic designer Douglas Clarke’s backdrop of the Yorkshire countryside, the spell of anything serious is immediately broken when Cora (Debra K. Stevens) asks, “Do I milk the Yak, or do I kill it?”  It’s this continual sense of self-deprecating humor with a Yorkshire accent that helps audiences warm to each of the ladies from the beginning. Their individuality is quickly established by the quips they make, plus it helps that so many of those faces are already familiar to valley audiences.

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Like the movie, most of the laughs are gentle rather than laugh-out-loud, but some things come across funnier on stage than on film, particularly the actual photo-shoot where a young, nervous photographer, Lawrence (Will Hightower) is subject to the occasional comical taunts of his more mature female subjects posing nude among all the well-placed fruit and flowers. Jesse (Patti Davis Suarez) takes gleeful delight in reminding Lawrence that the naked woman before him was once his high-school teacher, and when the well-endowed Celia (Johanna Carlisle) removes her bra and can’t quite hide all of her cup-runneth-over features behind the props of bread and fruit-filled cakes, one of the ladies declares, “We’re going to need significantly bigger buns.”

Among the cast of those ten, fabulous women are three men.  D. Scott Withers makes an effectively sympathetic John; David Dickinson’s Rod the florist establishes good presence in a small role, and Will Hightower’s photographer Lawrence is a ball of nervous fun. It’s only Hightower’s second appearance as Liam the English TV producer in obvious, dark show biz glasses where director Elaine Moe (billed as E.E. Moe+) has a cast member play things with a somewhat broader, larger-than-life approach. Even though it’s brief, it temporarily breaks the spell of authenticity while echoing those wisely cut Hollywood scenes.

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With respect to the accents, director Moe has bravely insisted on not only having her characters speak with English voices but English voices with a difficult northern, Yorkshire accent. The rhythm of the dialogue and the local references of shopping at Tescos, buying cakes at Marks and Spencers and Cora’s instruction to imagine she’s ‘chad’ all the men looking at her calendar pic demand it. Here the results are mixed at best – in truth, even English actors from the London south find maintaining an authentic sounding Yorkshire accent thorny – but at least even during those odd moments where an actor conveys what sounds more like a speech impediment than an accent, the flavor is always there.

One interesting note: In England, where the events are, for obvious reasons, more famous, Amateur Dramatic Societies and voluntary community theatres up and down the country donate any profits made after production costs to further the charity fund raising program begun by the Yorkshire ladies. Amazingly, eighteen years after the real event, the play itself has now become a part of the ever-developing story.

Pictures courtesy of Erin Evangeline Photography

For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the official Phoenix Theatre website.

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