Highbury Theatre rise to the cheeky challenge of staging this much-loved story about a Yorkshire Women’s Institute group baring all for a charity fundraising calendar.
The 2003 film (starring, among others, Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Celia Imrie and Penelope Wilton) was a huge warm-hearted hit and was adapted for the stage by screenplay writer Tim Firth five years later. A talented ensemble creates the same warmth, camaraderie and friendship on the Highbury stage in a giggle-a-minute production.
Based on the true story of a group of women from the Rylstone WI in North Yorkshire, the real calendar raised more than £5m for the Leukaemia Research Fund. The courage of these women is rightly honoured in this stage version of the story, directed by Denise Phillips, which perfectly combines humour and heartbreak.
Pip Olliver brings a wonderful wildness and energy to the role of Chris, who suggests the calendar following the death of Annie’s husband John to cancer. Louise Grifferty is a fiercely loyal Annie, devoted to John’s memory. The convincing friendship between the two, although tested when fame beckons following the calendar’s success, is the emotional core of the play.
From the opening scene, which sees Chris attempting to lead a group Tai Chi session to the strains of Jerusalem, we are in firm WI stereotype territory: jam making, cake baking and a guest speaker sharing the fascinating history of broccoli. Unlikely friends they may be, but the connection between them is strong from the start. We quickly care about each of the women and their different personalities and backgrounds as the first act builds towards the much-anticipated photo shoot, brilliantly handled with strategically placed buns and jars of marmalade.
Sandra Haynes is perfectly cast as retired schoolteacher Jessie, combining biting sarcasm with an optimistic embracing of old age. She has no hesitation in volunteering to strip for the calendar “just as long as it’s no front bottoms.” Piano-playing Cora, the vicar’s daughter and a single mum, is played with dry wit and a big heart by Rebecca Higgs and there’s great comic work from Maggie Lane as feisty, fashion-obsessed Celia. Kate Pilling is all smiles as the people-pleasing Ruth, completing the calendar crew as the last of the women to pose for the cameras.
Despite the title, it’s not all about the girls. This is a true ensemble piece and the whole talented cast contribute to this winning production: Ziona Smith is marvellously haughty as snobby chairwoman Marie, Jake Collyer brings coy nervousness to photographer Liam and Dave Douglas is moving as Annie’s husband John before his death.
Whilst cancer is ever-present in the background, ‘Calendar Girls’ is a charming celebration of love, loyalty, charity and the uniting power of friendship. This production feels like time well-spent with friends: what more could you ask for? A must-see.
Calendar Girls is playing at Highbury Theatre in Sutton Coldfield from 13th to 24th June 2023.