Calendar Girls provides unique on-stage balance
JJ Brewis

Censorship. Cancer. Death. Tackling major issues such as these is a hard task to bring to the stage. The Arts Club’s take on Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls manages to get the job done in a surprisingly eloquent manner.

When Annie’s (Wendy Noel) husband, John (Shawn Macdonald), is diagnosed with leukemia, he keeps a resistant smile on his face. His fate seems unclear, but Calendar Girls uses some interesting staging to let the events unfold: halfway through another scene, he physically gets up and walks out of his wheelchair, and only then is it apparent that we are witnessing not just a regular meeting, but John’s funeral itself. Moments like these make this version of the play, directed by Rachel Ditor, an artistic representation of real-life moments that many of us have been through, or can still relate to on a basic human level.

The story follows a group of six women in Yorkshire, UK, who attend the same WI (Women’s Institutes) of England whose aim is to bring women together in rural communities. The groups focus on traditional “female-based” activities such as knitting, canning, and teas. The six characters are all so incredibly different, with personalities ranging from the outspoken Annie, to the story’s senior cast member, the bold Jessie, played with flair by Shirley Broderick (she storms out of the set at one point definitely announcing she’s going to buy crack).

However, the most mentionable fact about Calendar Girls is that the story is entirely real. The real-life events turned into a 2003 film starring Helen Mirren, which took an already-popular true story and made it into a world-famous one. The stage version, adapted from the movie, plays on the notion that everyday people with their hearts in the right place can accomplish more than they set out to – even to the point of being overwhelmed with their own results.

After John passes on, Annie is haunted, eventually deciding that she and her WI colleagues should raise funds to build a tribute to John at his former hospital. Of course, the show really gets going when Annie and her best friend Chris (Anna Galvin) try and convince their group to pose mostly-nude for the WI’s calendar, which is set to be their main fundraiser for John’s memorial. From the busty, lusty Celia (Kerry Sandomirsky) to the prim, resistant Ruth (Jane Noble), the group is all over the place in terms of their feelings. Naturally, the project doesn’t mesh with traditional conventions of the WI, but its interest from the community and the thrill of the naughtiness that gets all six women on board.

By the time the photographer arrives, all the women seem to agree that they’re ready to pose nude – given that WI-related props such as cookies and yarn will cover their intimate areas. The photo shoot, which closes the first act, is a raucous time for the audience as well as the women on stage, who crowd together to help “Miss February” get naked, and carefully place some knitting, or a teapot, or some pastries in place of the “naughty bits.” It was fun watching these actors get just as much of a thrill taking off their clothes as their characters were.

Interestingly, the second half offers a far more dramatic turn, as the women face various reactions to the calendar. This stress causes personality clashes within the group, as they have to appear at a National WI Conference in London to defend their decision. It only felt that much more real that the show paraded both highs and lows of such a scandalous situation.

Naturally, the backlash towards the calendar was mixed, ultimately leaving the calendar girls confused and shocked at the results, second-guessing their own decisions. Some major feminist questions come into play, such as the consideration of what would have occurred if the calendar featured men in the women’s places.

The set design for Calendar Girls was understated, but a perfect canvas for the women to navigate their journey. Like much of the dialogue and story, which let the audience piece together aspects of the women’s backstories that the play didn’t have time to tell, the set featured a half-formed church roof, letting the viewer envision the rest of the environment for themselves. A handful of chairs casually scattered the stage, but aside from that, the production values were quite demure, letting the show focus on what was important: the story and the performances.

Given the balance of laughs and heart-wrenching moments, the play did a great job of tying everything together in a well-proportioned manner, letting the emotionally raw material dilute with a little humour. Aside from the odd line that was hard to understand given the array of false British accents, it was almost as if you were seeing the real story unfold.

And then, in a way, the real story was before our eyes at curtain call, as the Theatre Manager turned to the crowd and introduced Tricia Stewart, the real Calendar Girl whom the Chris character was based on. The fact that she got applause louder than the cast itself showed a crowd who connected not only with the production, but with the story itself.

//JJ Brewis, art director
//Graphics by Katie So

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com