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Calendar Girls/Liverpool Empire

Heather Smith likes the Yorkshire comedy - but not the scousey bits bolted on

Written by . Published on November 22nd 2011.

Calendar Girls/Liverpool Empire

YOU'VE probably seen the exposed cast of Calendar Girls already. On the side of a bus or something. I can't remember a time before the posters of Jennifer Ellison’s bare bottom were everywhere. Many moons, you might say. 

 It is smart and moving with a range
of well-crafted, likeable characters

Anyway, Tim Firth’s stage adaptation of his and Juliette Towhidi’s 2003 hit film of the same name is only at the Empire until Saturday so you ain't got long to see it, after all the hype. 

Based on a true story, the fundraising caper of a Women’s Institute chapter surpasses all expectations when their saucily snapped calendar raises enough money for a whole new hospital wing, rather than a new sofa for the relatives' room as initially intended. 

Overheard murmurs in the interval of a “slow start” irritated me no end. Let’s be clear, Calendar Girls is not about a bunch of all-age women being frivolously naked or (the preferred term) nude. This show is about cancer. It’s funny in parts, yes, but it is also smart and moving with a range of well-crafted, likeable characters. 

Joe McGann puts in a poignant performance as leukaemia-suffering John. His gut reaction to “becoming the third person” in conversation is both sharp and sincere. Similarly, his walk-off-exit signifying death is perfectly executed, subtle and spine tingling. 

Jennifer Ellison Goes Naked In Calendar Girls Just Five Months After Giving Birth 2
The focus is then left with the WI women who create the calendar in John’s memory. In other words, the fun begins. June Watson is brilliant here as ex-school-teacher Jessie. Who knew that the touching outburst about how “those who have the least time left often make the most of it” was in fact mere code for the “No front bottoms!” brigade. 

Post-photoshoot laughs see tensions rise between widow Annie (Jan Harvey) and her best friend, the lively, outspoken, caged-star Chris (Lynda Bellingham). When the priorities of fundraising seem to go awry amid media interest, it all comes out in a blistering row.

Strictly Come Dancing’s Camilla Dallerup (Elaine) doesn’t have much to do as the patronising and amoral make-up artist, except to be there for good-girl Ruth (yet another audience favourite, Debbie Chazen) to blaspheme at. 

Elsewhere, it was a pleasant surprise to see that director Jack Ryder, the one-time teen heart-throb from EastEnders, has not slipped into the minor-celebrity abyss but seems to be doing rather well. 

While this early executive effort shows no obvious diversion from Hamish McColl’s original West End production (in which Ryder played the small part of Liam) it is nonetheless coolly composed and shows some restraint, where tactlessness could easily have been an issue. 

One controversial qualm: Jennifer Ellison’s Cora “Oh Christ!” character is allowed - perhaps encouraged - to be a bit too scouse. They had her in a Beatles T-shirt at one point, honestly. 

At times, her accent felt unnaturally forced and projected in a way that stood out and slightly misplaced the Yorkshire setting. To this end, the constant beef with posh Cheshire also seemed a bit odd and annoying.

Surely a good play needn’t be pointlessly regionalised just because it is on the move. 

None of this, however, seeped into Ellison’s clear singing talent. In her strangely believable single mother, church organist and vicar’s daughter guise, she led many a well-harmonised reprise of Jerusalem and shined through the chorus every time. 

Ultimately Calendar Girls works because it conveys simple things well; characters and emotions. The bare essentials in fact.


* Calendar Girls is at the Empire until Sat Nov 26.

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