Calendar Girls: Being naked on stage, but very tasteful

Photo: Michael Smith

Calendar Girls by Tim Firth
Auckland Theatre Company
Civic Theatre
Until August 20

When stars such as Helen Mirren or Ian McKellen are seen naked on stage they make headlines. But these displays are often fleeting and many of the plays with nude actors such The Full Monty and Ladies Night Out are often not all that revealing.

Calendar Girls, the latest ATC offering, doesn’t reveal all that much in the way of flesh but when it does it’s in a good cause, so it’s perfectly acceptable.

The play is a reworking of the original film, which was also written by Tim Firth. It tells the tale of a group of Women’s Institute members who decide to produce a calendar so they can buy a couch for the local hospital in honour of a husband, John, who recently died of cancer.

The WI has always produced a tasteful calendar for fund raising and the initial idea for the coming year was one depicting Bridges of Yorkshire. Of course, this wouldn’t have made for much of a scintillating story.

Instead of these ancient beauties they decide to make one of more modern beauties; themselves, mainly because research at the local shop indicated that the most popular calendars sold were of naked or nude females.

The calendar becomes a success selling several hundred thousand copies and raising enough money for a new wing to the hospital. It’s pretty much the same as the film but where in the film they get to go to Hollywood in the play they finish by doing Tai Chi on the Yorkshire Dales.

In many ways it is not a well written play; the plot development lurches a bit and the highlight of the play, the naked photo shoot, comes in the middle with witty padding on either side. The character development is patchy and the balance between the tragic and comic is uneven.

Even the themes which the play touches on – class distinctions and our circumscribed ways of talking about sex – are never really developed.

But for all that it is a delightful and entertaining piece of theatre. It has heart, lots of genuine emotion and true sentimentality. The success of the show is due largely to the enthusiastic performances of the six female leads.

The audience warmed to the characters as they plotted and agonised their way through the process of deciding if they would take the plunge to strip and then the momentous day when they have their photo shoot.

The play manages to provide something between voyeurism and titillation, never giving offence, presenting the naked women in the best of all possible taste. This is a show for the prudish as well as the broadminded – maybe not too prudish, though.

Theresa Healey as Annie, wife of John, and Jennifer Ludlum as Chris, the rebellious member of the Women’s Institute and the only one to reveal her body, lead the cast.

They hold all the threads of the play together with some finely tuned acting, bringing out the subtle rivalry between Chris’ quest for celebrity and Annie’s grieving “celebrity saint” status.

Alison Quigan and Kate-Louise Elliott are the older, fuller figures of Jessie and Cora with their reservations about showing their “front bottoms." For the raunchier Cora (Alison Bruce),  taking her clothes off would seem to be a reasonably common activity.

Hera Dunleavy as the constantly startled and bewildered Ruth occasionally resorts to over enthusiastic acting as does Catherine Downes as Marie.


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