Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival continues with Calendar Girls, and Saoirse O’Connor-Tyrrell whoops and hollers her way through opening night.
Miss July… sorry, this July, you’ll struggle to find a better night out than this production of Calendar Girls by the Everyman Theatre Company. Exuberant, poignant and full of joy, it’s an evening you won’t forget in a hurry, not just because it’s quite unusual for naked, or rather, nude women to be allowed in Sophia Gardens.
Audiences may be familiar with the 2004 film version of Calendar Girls, starring Dames Helen Mirren and Julie Walters alongside a litany of famous character actresses. Daunting acts to follow, but absolute credit goes to the Everyman cast for managing to give their own distinctive performances of characters originated by acting royalty. The plot follows the ladies of the Knapely W.I. and their plans to raise enough money to buy a new sofa for the relative’s room at their local cancer ward in memory of one of their late husbands. How will they raise the sum, you ask? By starring in a nude calendar inspired by classic Women’s Institute activities- obviously! The real-life feel-good story rocketed to the silver screen but felt a bit overstretched by the need for a flashy American trip in its final third. By contrast, the stage version scales it all back to that perennial stomping ground of British comedy, the church hall, channelling the likes of Dad’s Army or cult suffragette sitcom, Up the Women. It’s a strong adaptation that lets the comedy shine while not stinting on the emotional drama.
Sarah Green gives a heartwarming performance as Celia, the posh totty with a perpetually golfing husband who, despite the odd bit of banter, clearly knows these girls have her back all the way–not like those tarts at the golf club, who are the butt of the scripts funniest one-liners. Bethan Griffiths is charming as the life and soul of the party Cora, especially when she puts down the vodka bottle and lets us in on the pressure of being a single mother and her guilt at how her choices have affected her daughter’s life. Laura Bridgwater gets some of the biggest laughs as Jessie, and her wry eye and sardonic humour are a lovely change from some of the madcap energies of the rest of the cast. Finally rounding out the ensemble is Ruth played by Amy Brooks, a meek lady with an overbearing husband. Brooks does a sterling job at hinting at an inner mischievousness and steely grit throughout the play, so when the mouse finally roars in the finale, she’s met with cheers and bellows of approval.
But Calendar Girls has a friendship right at its centre, and without a strong performance from Joan Hoctor and Pam Wiener as Chris and Annie, the whole thing would have felt slightly hollow. Luckily, they effortlessly created a believable friendship which captured the ebullience and bittersweetness at the heart of a long-running relationship where something has irrevocably changed. It’s these two that make the whole thing ring true. You can completely see how Chris, bright-eyed, bolshy and unabashedly loyal, and Annie, calmer, quieter and made of stern stuff, are the kind of leaders that people get behind and who get things done–sometimes even more successfully than they could’ve imagined.
At this point I take my hat off to all of the Calendar Girls and their creative team for an Act 1 finale that involved some of the best stage craft I’ve seen in ages (particularly well done to whoever was responsible for checking sight lines). One actor stripping off is one thing, but to have most of your main cast disrobe one after another in quick succession before ending on a group nude shot is another challenge altogether!
Calendar Girls is a wonderful way to spend a few hours, not least because of its pure rhapsodic delight in the female body and how the last phase is one of the most beautiful. And if the standing ovation on Thursday night was anything to go by, I’m not the only one who thinks so. Well done ladies, I’ll take a hundred.
Calendar Girls plays at the Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival until Saturday 15th July, tickets available here.