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This article was published 18/3/2011 (2231 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The central joke of Calendar Girls is that middle-aged English matrons stripping off their clothes would have something worth showing off.
So the laugh is on anyone who attended Thursday's opening night at the Manitoba Theatre Centre thinking they would see anything more revealing than how far these woman would go to honour the memory of a loved one. Oh, there is plenty of cheek, bawdy humour and naked ambition, but owing to well-positioned props, you probably see more skin in a Bay flyer.
Like the 2003 film, the stage version of Calendar Girls celebrates ordinary ladies who did an extraordinary thing in a girls-gone-mild kind of way. Director Marti Maraden rallied you-go-girl support from the heavily female MTC crowd in the lead-up to the crowd-pleasing photo shoot, the comic climax of the uplifting first act. The occasional dramatic heavy-handedness is hard to ignore, so it's a wise choice to approach it emotionally rather than intellectually.
British stagewriter Tim Firth retells the now-familiar true story of the stodgy Women's Institute members who shocked the inhabitants of their sleepy Yorkshire town, and themselves, by posing naked for a 2000 fundraising calendar after one of them, Annie (Fiona Highet), loses her saintly husband John to lymphoma.
John (Dan Lett) was a dedicated gardener and before his death compared Yorkshire women to light-seeking sunflowers, which are always the most glorious in their last phase. So instead of depicting the traditional local landscapes, pushy instigator Chris (Fiona Reid) hatches the plan to spice the calendar up with a garden of English roses in autumnal blossom.
The only rule? "No front bums," begs Jessie (Barbara Gordon).
The prospect of baring it all for public consumption forces a reawakening for the mostly over-50 women, who have been made to feel invisible by a youth-obsessed culture, a philandering husband or the shame of single motherhood. Watching their spiritual revival as they shed their clothes and the shackles of what the rest of the world expects of them is the primary pleasure of Calendar Girls.
The standout in that department is repressed Ruth (Terri Cherniack), a timid goody-two-shoes who refuses to stand up for herself until empowered by some liquid courage and the liberating shoot. The look of chuffed pleasure on Cherniack's face when she first gazes at her pinup encapsulates that moment of female empowerment.
The ever game Reid is quite engaging as the outspoken Chris, who has many of the best lines and is the only girl who brazenly whips off her bra, a brave move even if she has her back to the audience. Among the able supporting cast are standouts Gordon, whose Jessie rages against society's ageism, and Jane Spence as buxom trophy wife Celia.
It's too bad that the two-hour comedy drama (plus intermission), which takes place mostly in a nondescript hall created by designer Robert Jones, did not end with the calendar shoot, as the second act feels like a sequel or unnecessary add-on. Nothing after the intermission approaches the giddy fun of watching the actresses operate outside their collective comfort zone. All that is left to accomplish is fleshing out the backstories of the women and issuing a limp warning about the evils of celebrity-seeking.
Firth's 2008 spinoff play is superior to the hit film, which he co-wrote with Juliette Towhidi. The focus has been widened into an ensemble comedy. His best move was to drop the entire calendar-girls-go-to-America plotline, where they appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and are made to look like country bumpkins.
Calendar Girls is one of those rare comedies targeted at middle-aged women; their virtues of big hearts and community spirit are worthy of occasional recognition.
Manitoba Theatre Centre
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3 1..2 out of 5 stars