Calendar GirlsAmanda Muggleton, Rhonda Burchmore, Anna Lee, Rachel Berger, Jean Kittson and Lorraine Bayly. Photo - Justine Walpole

It is Friday night and every seat is taken at the Comedy Theatre. Men and women, with middle-aged women in the majority, have flocked to see some of their favourite actresses strip down to basics and have a good laugh. Those of us who saw the 2003 movie Calendar Girls will remember the true story about the Women’s Institute members in Yorkshire who posed semi-nude to raise money for leukaemia research and have now raised over two million pounds.

Tim Firth, who co-wrote the screenplay for the film, has now scripted it for the stage and, after meeting with great success in the UK, a local production of the play has attracted some of the grandes dames of Australian theatre: Amanda Muggleton, Lorraine Bayly, Rhonda Burchmore, Cornelia Frances, Jean Kittson, Rachel Berger and Anna Lee among them. The result is an uproarious comedy and an inspiring tale of womanpower.

The setting for this true-life story, a WI meeting hall in Yorkshire, is perfect for the stage. Where the movie excels in reproducing the Yorkshire dales and quaint village life, the play scores better in bringing into focus a group of women in a drab church hall trying their best to jolly themselves along through their everyday dramas until the big one hits: the fatal illness of a husband.

The Comedy Theatre is a fitting venue, both for its original 1920s gilded charm and its name. Comedy is at the heart of this production, which lends itself to spontaneous slapstick, as well as to rehearsed tableaux and the infamous photo shoot that provides the climax to Act One. With no filmic tricks on hand, much is made of the preparation, screening and final unveiling of each member as she becomes an unlikely star in front of the camera. The audience erupts as the situation is milked for maximum comic effect.

Unfortunately, the acoustics of the theatre are second-rate and the actors are almost shouting to be heard above the audience laughter. Muggleton, in the pivotal role of Chris, has the most commanding voice, and it is the strength of her acting in this role that holds the show on course. All the women play well-defined characters and director Psyche Stott makes full use of their diverse talents. Burchmore and Kittson shine in their physical comedy, with Kittson as the dowdy Ruth keeping both cast and audience in stitches in the final act.

Sitting next to a friend who is vision impaired, I became aware how much the production relied on physical comedy for its humorous impact. The jokes were lost on her. The dialogue, without the visual stage business, is far from scintillating. Although a more carefully crafted script would be more satisfying, the present one gives great scope for acting talent and there was plenty of that on show. Lorraine Bayly has perfect timing as the feisty retired teacher Jessie; Anna Lee is touching and complex as the bereaved Annie; and Annie Byron wafts with aplomb as Lady Cravenshire. Rachel Berger as single mother Cora is subdued but earthy, her impact lessened by her voice tapering off at the end of her lines.

Other outstanding performances are given by David Downer, who contributes a nuanced and moving portrayal of the dying husband John, and recent graduate Andrew Cutcliffe, who plays the both the photographers - the sweet Lawrence and the deadly Liam - in perfectly judged opposing styles.

What lingers after the show are the waves of laughter rippling across the auditorium; the brave humour and camaraderie of women on a mission; and Burchmore’s crooked smile atop her cup-cakes.


John Frost by arrangement with David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers presents
Calendar Girls
by Tim Firth

Director Psyche Stott

Venue: Comedy Theatre | Exhibition St, Melbourne
Dates: 17 June – 1 August, 2010
Times: Wednesday – Saturday 8pm, Tuesday & Wednesday matinee 1pm, Saturday matinee 2pm, Sunday 3pm
Tickets: $60.90 - $99.90
Bookings: Ticketek.com.au | 1300 795 012