The heartwarming tale of a plucky band of women bonding for a good cause in highly unlikely fashion, “Calendar Girls” is “Stepping Out” with no clothes on. Except “Stepping Out” was a play then a movie, while “Calendar Girls” began as a 2003 Miramax film based on real-life events. Creaky though this stage adaptation is, its faithful dedication to the genuinely affecting true story means that, by the skin of its teeth, the show gets away with it.
“I invite you to come with me into the fascinating world of broccoli.” That suggestion, from an irony-free guest speaker addressing six underwhelmed characters at a local Yorkshire branch of the W.I. (Women’s Institute), sums up the world of Tim Firth’s play.
For this cheerfully squabbling, cozy company that regularly meets in the all-purpose village hall, the biggest drama is likely to be passing off a shop-bought cake as homemade in a baking competition. But when Annie (Patricia Hodge) loses her beloved husband John (Gary Lilburn) to cancer, they decide to raise funds for a commemorative sofa at the hospital.
No-nonsense Chris (the redoubtable Lynda Bellingham) takes charge. She only joined the W.I. “to prove to my mother-in-law I was respectable.” Chris persuades her mostly middle-aged friends that instead of publishing the expected W.I. photos of local churches, they should throw caution, and their underwear, to the winds for a nude calendar.
The narrative follows the real-life story with official W.I. disapproval superseded by publication, local astonishment, media coverage, nationwide delight, worldwide sales, etc. Ironically, for all its sincerity, that slavishness is the show’s weakness. The less literal the show is — both in terms of script and its too evenly paced production — the more interesting it becomes. But the play too often succumbs to the besetting problem of bio-drama: True-life largely lacks a satisfying story arc.
The show also suffers from what might be termed “Love, Actually” disorder. There are simply too many characters clamoring for the detail and development that would create real audience engagement. As it is, most of them are reduced to embodying a one-line description. Thus Sian Phillips is the plain-speaking old one, Elaine C. Smith is the piano-playing vicar’s daughter “gone to the bad,” and so forth.
At its weakest, “Calendar Girls” is an “and then” play, with one expository scene following another. Its time-lapses are heavily signposted — for example, Santa Claus outfits introduce a Christmas scene.
Everything finally takes off with the first-act closer in which the photos are taken. Director Hamish McColl whips up the necessary nervous excitement among both the ladies and audience as the women contrive ever more amusing and fanciful ways to uncover themselves while keeping breasts and below concealed by comic props.
With the second half wisely ditching the movie’s unconvincing shift to America, focus shifts to the central relationship between Chris and Annie. Hodge brings out the material’s true pathos but it’s Bellingham’s show thanks to her tireless energy lifting well-intentioned material that might otherwise sag.
But even she has to struggle, marooned on the insipidly lit, wide expanse of Chichester’s open stage. The experienced cast resorts to belting mildly ribald but safe joke-lines out across the three-sided space with resultant overkill. Ensconced within the proscenium arches of theaters on the already-booked tour, however, matters should improve considerably.
As figures for the “Mamma Mia!” and “Sex and the City” movies prove, there is a potentially vast female audience. “Calendar Girls” looks set to be their theater equivalent. Prior to opening, it had already garnered a £2.6 million ($4.6 million) box office advance. The show’s lack of sophistication may hurt it in the high-priced, competitive West End. But its generosity of spirit and considerable good humor are likely to be a boon for the U.K. touring circuit.