Belfast Telegraph

Never outdated, life-affirming tale of ladies who dare to bare

Calender Girls, Grand Opera House, Belfast

By Jane Hardy

Calender Girls is the play, and film, and DVD and everything else that ensured we never looked at the WI in the same way again.

This frequently retold narrative of one brave middle-aged Yorkshirewoman Annie Clark — who decided to raise two fingers to what's described as the “s***** sly disease cancer” after the loss of her husband John to leukaemia by selling a tasteful nude calendar involving her friends — is magnificently life-enhancing.

That is partly down to Tim Firth's script, which is Willy Russell with a down a bit, right a bit accent in terms of UK geography. It's also thanks to a superb cast who may be known for their telly credentials but who can act a storm onstage.

So who, to pardon the expression, is the most titillating, or do I mean engaging, in the sort of female roles that Helen Mirren and co snapped up in the movie version? Well, Lesley Joseph isn't half bad as Chris, the bullying, organising friend of Annie.

Sue Holderness as the wife-stroke-widow and Joseph do a brilliant double act, mixing empathy, gossip and warmth in a way the mostly female first night audience clearly got.

It's less slick than the film, and that's as it should be.

There was Ruth Madoc, hi-de-ho, as the would-be posh character, who'd moved to Cheshire (read Cultra) and wanted to belittle her former WI colleagues.

But for my money, one of the best readings of this story of a somehow very British sisterhood was Helen Fraser's Jessie.

She shone when revealing to the young male photographer, well outlined by Kevin Sacre, that she was his schoolteacher.

It was a total gas, this evening about love, loss and keeping calm(ish) and carrying on.

Although not Carrying On, as the tone, in spite of some good gags, was much subtler. In the second act there were, as you'd expect, complications, although the national Women's Institute board finally approved the risqué venture. The scene where the women realise they've gone viral in media terms was clever and well staged, as was the whole production directed by Jack Ryder, with Miss October and the rest dashing offstage to be snapped by a million lenses.

The denouement was affecting, but it couldn't be anything else. When Annie said she hated jam making, but would have gone naked down the Skipton streets smeared with damson jam to raise money to defeat cancer, we clapped. Loudly.

You could say it ends when the women put their clothes back on against the Yorkshire Dales backdrop, but, of course, what they actually don is pride, achievement and the odd tear.

Rather like the appreciative audience leaving the Grand Opera House, in fact.

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