The stage version of Calendar Girls is in town this week. It’s another big ‘un for the Empire, and a powerful, moving show that should not be dismissed out of hand as “one for the nans”, as it’s been put. The tale of a WI group who come up with the idea of stripping off for their annual charity calendar is now well known and this vibrant, revolving-cast touring production has attracted a wealth of well-known names, often in rather small supporting roles. Is it testament to this show that it is worth being involved, even without top billing?
Breezy WI life takes a turn when Annie’s (Julia Hills) husband John (Joe McGann), loved by the community, is diagnosed as terminally ill. Friends, including flighty Chris (Elaine C Smith), naïve big girl Ruth (a lovely comic performance from Rachel Lumberg), sardonic ex-teacher Jessie (Anne Charleston), and trophy wife Celia (Jennifer Ellison on top form) rally round. The strength of the piece lies in the fact that we all know these women, we’ve all met people like these characters, and that really shines through.
The excellent photo-shoot scene is just hilarious (it seemed we saw more of Denise Black than we were supposed to last night). By that time, the audience has well and truly warmed to the characters, which makes the scenes that follow, as they start to realise how their calendar has touched people, just ridiculously poignant. Bring tissues. Plenty of tissues. The saddest scenes are so moving because they are simply very natural, not a forced, theatrical tugging at the heartstrings but a reflection of real experiences.
It’s the writing of Tim Firth that makes the second act so beautiful, a classy, well-crafted balance of tears and laughter that really is the stuff of life. This after something of a surprisingly clumsy start, as each character flapped around, trying to set out their stall around some pretty laborious gags and iffy sound. Once everyone is established, things fit nicely into place, but it takes a little while.
In the end though, it’s simply a charmer with a very sweet, very human message. You’ll leave with a lump in your throat and an overwhelming desire to throw a few quid in the charity collection bucket on the way out, whether you usually ignore them or not.
Calendar Girls is on at the Liverpool Empire until Saturday, October 2. For tickets and information, see the website.