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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Noel Coward


   Gaynor Faye, Patricia Hodge, Si‚n Phillips, Lynda Bellingham, Elaine C Smith and Julia Hill

The ethos seems to have been "Aim low, achieve lower" - no, not that low - when it comes to Calendar Girls, Tim Firth's surpassingly tired stage version of the far superior 2003 Helen Mirren/Julie Walters film that Firth co-authored. For some reason, plays of pre-existing films seem inevitably to satisfy less frequently (cf. Rain Man) than stage musicals of movies: The Producers being just one example of a stage show that improves in multiple ways on what now seems a mean-spirited, borderline grotesque screen source. Calendar Girls the film was sentimental and boisterous in more or less equal measure, possessed of an exuberance that suited its tale of a community of Women's Institute stalwarts in Yorkshire who artfully bare all for a charity calendar at the behest the feisty Chris. (Mirren's screen assignment falls on stage to Lynda Bellingham, who is among the few in the cast even to attempt the regional accent.)

Firth's play, by contrast, takes a color-by-numbers approach both to incident and character, in much the way that the calendar itself adopts a Miss November concept of personality,in that case understandably so. But just as Hamish McColl's production can't seem to populate the stage of the Noel Coward Theatre with enough women to fill all twelve months, the play is fun when the women are doing their posing (that's to say, towards the end of the first act) and is otherwise a groan-and-bear-it affair, and that's without beginning to examine the deeply patronizing undertow to the entire project. Not that its intended public will give a fig - no, make that a fig leaf. The woman seated two to my left was chortling with such abandon that my companion and I began to fear for her well-being midway through. At least we all kept our clothes on.

The play taps into the British spirit of mucking in, which in this case means doing one's bit to chivvy along Patricia Hodge's Annie (Walter's screen role), wife of the cancer-afflicted John (Gary Lilburn). It's the infinitely plucky Chris who decides, "Flesh sells," and begins to rally the troops, Bellingham's exhortations clearly priming her should she decide some day to play a rare distaff version of Henry V. Most of the rest of the assemblage never get beyond an identifying trait of a regional accent (Elaine C. Smith's tattooed Scottish Cora), sartorial abuse (Gaynor Faye's Celia is told she dresses like a tart), and that ongoing English bugbear of adultery (Julia Hills's Ruth, wedded to a none-too-faithful husband). For the most part, the play bides time as it careers from one set piece to another, the best being the elaborate mock-ups for the calendar itself, which find the women posed in, around, and behind cream buns, tea cups, and pieces of fruit, Sian Phillips's onetime school teacher revealing aghast that she knew the (male) photographer back when, as it were.

The redoubtable Phillips sails merrily through a script that doesn't begin to tax her, though thank heavens it is she barking, "No front bottoms," before beating a beautifully timed retreat. Phillips's erstwhile co-star in the National Theatre A Little Night Music, Hodge smiles gamely if a tad wearily - the reaction, I'd imagine, of those audience members that remain unconverted - while Bellingham blusters, "it's 'nude,' not 'naked,'" with enough vigor to land her a job instantly in academe. Why is it that in my (reasonably) extensive education, I never encountered a professor who made clear the subtle differences between those two words? Such are the questions that linger on following a show one otherwise forgets in an instant. Calendar Girls<


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