Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Calendar Girls ***

Calendar Girls 
By Tim Firth
Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, from June 23, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Wherever six women of a certain age are gathered they shall produce a nude calendar. Well, I made that rule up, but it describes quite effectively the story of Calendar Girls, Tim Firth’s stage play based on his film (starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters) that was, in turn, based on a true story.

 In 1999, 11 women from the Yorkshire village of Cracoe, members of the Women’s Institute, bared all on the pages of the annual W.I. calendar to make money for Leukaemia research. The catalyst for this charitable and risqué plan was the death from lymphoma of the husband of one of their community. Their calendar made 2 million quid – so get naked for charity, ladies!

The Australian production features a casting couch of women over 50 – some further over 50 than others. Amanda Muggleton is bold and brassy as Chris, the village show-off who always craved being the centre of attention. Anna Lee plays the grieving widow, Annie, Lorraine Bayly is the perky, retired schoolteacher, Jessie, and Rachel Berger plays single mum and church organist, Cora. Rhonda Burchmore is the fit and sassy Celia, the trophy wife of a local golfer and Jean Kittson is the mousey, goody-two-shoes, Ruth.

Kittson’s hilarious characterisation of Ruth is the comic highlight. She creates a classic, low status clown with her gangling, awkward gait and madcap slapstick, combining it with poignant vulnerability.

This show ain’t art; the gags are predictable, the set is pure, village drama society, the dialogue is schmaltzy, the narrative sentimental, accents patchy and the direction (Psyche Stott) clumsy and unimaginative.

But this show touches its target audience; it is identification theatre. The house was packed with older women who tittered at cheeky gags then roared and squealed when the cast got their kit off for the calendar photos, their womanly parts skilfully obscured by iced buns, teapots and mandarins.

The moving, true story behind the play is ever-present. We enjoy the show despite its artistic failings and, in some ways, because of them. It reminds us of daggy country fetes, lamington drives, and the indomitable spirit of women who band together to help neighbours in times of need. And it’s really fun watching these women toss their dressing gowns off to flash a bit of thigh and bosom.

By Kate Herbert

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