By Tim Firth
Directed by Marti Maraden
Performed by Fiona Reid, Fiona Highet, Kathryn Akin, Terri Cherniack, Barbara Gordon, Kyra Harper, Dan Lett, Sweeney MacArthur, Kimberley Rampersad, Brigitte Robinson, Jane Spence, Gordon Tanner.
Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto
April 15 to May 28, 2011
Reviewed by Mary Alderson
Naked, no Nude, Calendar for a Cause
Offering great entertainment for middle-aged women, the Calendar Girls take us on a journey through the changing seasons. We see them during Christmas and Easter, and while planting seeds and reaping the harvest.
Calendar Girls, originally at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, moved to Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre and opened this week. It’s the story of the members of the Women’s Institute in the small town of Knapely, England. The group meets to hear guest speakers on topics such as the story of broccoli, and to show their baking and marmalade at the local fair. When Annie’s husband, John, dies of leukemia, she and her friend Chris complain of how uncomfortable they found the settee in the family room at the hospital. Chris decides to organize a fundraiser to buy a new couch, and instead of the usual calendar of Yorkshire churches or bridges, she convinces the W.I. ladies to pose for nude photos in an attempt to improve calendar sales.
Obviously there is great humour in this story, with the W.I. members overcoming prudish ideas and conquering their fears of what the town will think of them baring it all. But even more wonderful is the story of dealing with grief and how friendship can survive differences. Based on a true story which became a movie, the script is well written with dialogue both witty and touching.
Fiona Reid as Chris, who spearheads the calendar plans, is perfectly cast. Not your typical W.I. member (she says she joined just to keep her mother-in-law happy), Ried has just the right combination of cheekiness and warmth. Reid is well known in Canadian theatre and will be remembered for her role as the groom’s mother in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Reid does an excellent portrayal of Chris’s journey – she starts out with the best of intentions, working on raising funds. When the publicity goes to her head, her turmoil is evident.
Terri Cherniak delightfully portrays Ruth, whose timidity almost prevents her from taking part in the calendar. Her comedic timing is excellent and she provides many of the laughs.
The beautiful Jane Spence creates a natural Celia. She’s one of those actors who makes it look as if she’s not acting at all. Kathryn Akin is very good as Cora, the vicar’s daughter and church organist, with the hint of a checkered past. Barbara Gordon as Jessie, the retired schoolteacher, brings a touch of class to the calendar. Fiona Highet plays Annie, who loses her husband, John, to cancer. Unfortunately, I didn’t find her portrayal of their relationship and her grief as convincing as it could have been.
All the nudity is cautiously done – props are strategically placed, even though the women do bare it all. The careful arrangements add to the comedy.
Dan Lett as John is very credible as the cancer victim – we see him age and weaken before our eyes. Gordon Tanner is amusing as the photographer, so uncomfortable working with the naked women. Kyra Harper and Brigitte Robinson are perfect as the snobs who find the calendar idea distasteful, and Sweeney MacArthur is good as Rod, Chris’s supportive husband. Kimberley Rampersad is ideal as the sexy mistress.
The show is interrupted with laughter several times, and occasionally by spontaneous applause. When Ruth finally recognizes her husband’s infidelity and tells off his mistress, the audience responds with hearty approval.
The set is a church hall or neighbourhood community centre, typical of the places where the W.I. meets. Unfortunately, the cupboards are at the very back of the stage, leaving too much space out front for the characters to fill. On occasion, they walk forward in order to be seen and heard, which seems unnatural. The field of sunflowers is a nice touch, but it takes just a little too long to get all the sunflowers upright.
It’s an enjoyable evening out – hilarious at times, yet a poignant tribute to friendship.
For tickets, call TicketKing 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333 or go to www.mirvish.com