Review: Calendar Girls, Richmond Theatre

Sunday 30 November 2008


Sometimes the Whingers leave the theatre inspired.

Braving the rugby fans heading for Twickenham yesterday they trailed out to the Richmond Theatre through the Simon Callow and Bonnie Langford themed ticket barriers at the station to see the stage adaptation of Calendar Girls.

Yes, with New Year just around the corner they’re left themselves with a matter of weeks to bring out their own charity calendar.

The Women’s Institute members depicted in Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth‘s play (based on their film of the same name) who famously stripped off for a charity calender led the Whingers to ask just who they might persuade to disrobe in aid of the Whingers favourite charity – themselves of course.

So, pending confirmation from some of your favourite theatrical luminaries, expect tasteful sepia tinted photos of: Kevin Spacey, Trevor Nunn, Margaret Tyzack, Charles Spencer and the Nicholases Hytner and de Jongh very soon.

The Whingers, as you might expect, will be putting their money where their enormous mouths are. Hiding their faces in their signature poses, they will also cover their modesty (if they possessed such a thing) with their programmes from Imagine This. Andrew will be appearing as Miss October and Phil as Miss January, because they are, after all, in the autumn and winters of their lives respectively.

Calendar Girls is such a well known story it’s enough to attract a flurry of well known names to the material, Lynda Bellingham, Patricia Hodge, Siân Phillips, Gaynor Faye, Brigit Forsyth, Julia Hills, and Elaine C Smith play the titular heroines who (mostly) get their kit off for the WI calender to raise money for a visitor room sofa in memory of Annie’s (Hodge) dead husband, little realising that media interest will catapult them into the limelight and prove more successful than they could ever have dreamed.

But despite the cast, the source and the audience (95% were women doubled up with laughter and breaking into applause throughout the play) it seemed churlish that the Whingers couldn’t help thinking that the panto season had started slightly too early.

The frequent applause was something of a new concept to the Whingers. Musicals attract applause at the end of a number but it’s something they didn’t expect in a play. The Whingers had yet another flash of inspiration to liven up the West End’s duller theatrical fodder and will be booking their clique into an upcoming performance of the Donmar’s The Family Reunion* to applaud every entrance, exit, costume change and Una Stubb’s wig.

What a waste of talent, no one in the cast seems able to make much of a mark, even Hodge failed to make an impact and even the marvellous Siân Phillips seemed out of place (although Phil being convinced he got a Ruthie Henshall style flash of nipple in the act one finale which one hopes might herald a new and popular addition to the traditional upstaging toolkit available to performers).

The likeable Gaynor Faye seems to be taking the thigh-slapping role of principal boy as she, like the rest of the cast, seem forced to play to the audience to get the laughs. And there are some big laughs as long as you accept you’re going to something that falls somewhere between stools of sit-com and panto.

In the rare moments it tries to be sombre: mawkish background music is played to underline the moment. When Annie reveals to best mate Chris (Bellingham) that her dying husband has got his test results the soundtrack kicks in so you realise that this is a serious moment.

On the plus side there’s an on-stage badminton game which – coming in the same week as the crazy golf in In A Dark Dark House – gave Phil added zest for his nascent sports-and-games-on-stage thesis**.

On paper, a light comedy featuring mostly women of a certain age all played by actresses in their prime should be meat and drink for the Whingers. But on the way out both Phil and Andrew agreed that while their mothers would enjoy it very much, they handn’t very much. A disconsolate air pervaded their attempts to conjure up some jollity over a glass of wine afterwards with the dawing suspicion that somewhere along the line they have become terrible, terrible theatre snobs (although mercifully not to the degree of pretending they understood The Family Reunion obviously).

If you’re rushing out to buy the Mamma Mia DVD this weekend this is probably the show for you but you’ve missed it as the show closed last night. However, it transfers to the West End in April opening at the Noel Coward theatre.


* Full marks to The Observer‘s Susannah Clapp for being one of the few critics to have seen through The Family Reunion:

This is a slow-motion nightmare. And it’s Eliot who is the real culprit. It’s often said that the play suffers from the difficulty of switching between the country-house and the classical Greek modes: well, it would, wouldn’t it? In fact, the difficulties are more ingrained. There’s the snobbery of it: the spiritual elect standing so clearly apart from the Mr Plods of this world. There’s the incantatory piety coming on as metaphysical depth. There’s the recycling, both from Eliot’s other works and from itself. Penelope Wilton’s magnificence is wasted on having to repeat lines about uncrossing the cross. And there’s the silliness. One pronouncement declares: ‘May the weasel and the otter/Be about their proper business.’ As opposed to doing what? Mugging stuffed shirts in country houses? Go for it, otters.

** He may not have long to wait for the next inspiration. The Whingers are off to see August: Osage County next week and according to our new favourite critic Ms Clapp, it is a “roistering, rollercoaster drama”. We can’t recall ever seeing a roller coaster on stage before and simply can not wait.


5 Responses to “Review: Calendar Girls, Richmond Theatre”

  1. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    ‘terrible, terrible snobs’… Glad to see the comma making its appearance again after its triumphant debut in the LaBute review…

  2. I’ve always though critic Susannah should be providing some sort of therapeutic counselling for directors who don’t entirely ‘get’ what their play is about, because she always seems to get to the crux of it. Perhaps the Observer should promote this. They could call it the Clapp Clinic.

  3. I kind of like the idea of publishing a review after it closes. Then at least you can’t be accused of closing the show with your review.

  4. JohnnyFox Says:

    Four months later: A Theatre in London one evening in early spring.

    Accepted a vertiginous comp to see it from the balcony of the Noel Coward (ex-Albery, ex-New) theatre and it was rather like hovering in a police helicopter over an accident on the A59 between a Transit van shuttling all-purpose extras from Corrie to Emmerdale, and a jack-knifed tanker of liquid glucose.

    My other allusion would be suffering a bout of man flu unable to reach the remote whilst re-runs of ‘Loose Women’ spool endlessly on ITV.

    It also struck me that if Elaine C. Smith banged that piano any harder and they all changed shoes, they could have done ‘Stepping Out’ at the same time.

    What seemed poignant or beautiful in the movie (and much of that was dubious) becomes crude and cardboard on stage, and from a hundred and twenty feet in the air even with my distance glasses, facial expressions and acted emotions could barely be discerned.

    Such a waste, as Hodge and Bellingham are worth much better than this, and Sian Phillips thinks she is. Gaynor Faye is an amateur in this company.

    Finally, as a Lancastrian, I do wish casts of ‘Northern’ comedies would take a vote on which side of the Pennines their accents are to be located, and stick to it.

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