It’s only been a year since Calendar Girls took to the Empire stage, but last night’s full house showed the appetite for the production was certainly still there. The well-worn tale of the WI group who bare all for the annual charity calendar is full of laughs, tears and genuine humanity, and stands up nicely to repeat viewing.
The original “Calendar Girls” chose their unique course of action following the death from cancer of a much-loved husband and pillar of the community. The film and stage show, penned by Warrington-born writer Tim Firth, taps into those universal themes of love, loss, friendship and family. It’s heartfelt, and it’s relatable, and that’s what makes it so irresistible.
There are plenty of new faces among the cast in this latest production, directed, unbelievably, by baby-faced former EastEnders star Jack Ryder. Jennifer Ellison returns, although this time in the role of single mum Cora rather than bored trophy wife Celia (now Rula Lenska).
Ellison is once again put in the horrible position of being the pantomime Scouser, but for the most part had a decent stab at rising above it. Lenska demonstrated fine comedy chops, delivering some of the funniest lines – which need to be spot on to provide the light relief from dark situations. June Watson, too, was incredibly good value as acerbic retired teacher Jessie.
Leading the pack was Lynda Bellingham, in a part that couldn’t be better suited to her. When Bellingham came to town to promote Calendar Girls a couple of months back, she spoke as a self-styled ambassador for women, particularly those, like her, of that dreaded ‘certain age’. She talked with warmth and passion about her role as bolshy Chris, and the importance of the older generation never being afraid to go out and “give it some welly”. Quite right too. Her enthusiasm shines through.
Her assured performance was probably the linchpin that put a whole theatre at ease from the word go. The bittersweet, thoroughly believable and beautifully empowering tale stays with you long after the curtain falls.