Heartwarming and funny tale

AN idea to bare all for a good cause propelled the Calendar Girls into the nation’s consciousness more than a decade ago and it remains a heartwarming and very funny tale, as shown by the stage version at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal this week.

The real Calendar Girls, members of the Cracoe village WI, near Skipton in the Yorkshire Dales, have now raised more than £3 million towards Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. Their original target was a new visitors’ room sofa at the local hospital, where WI member Angela Baker’s husband John had died at 53 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Using John’s favourite plant, the sunflower, as their symbol, they persuaded each other to pose for a Pirelli-style charity calendar and the result was a global phenomenon.

The 2003 film starring Helen Mirren gave rise to an award-winning West End run and two sellout touring weeks.

The latest version at the Theatre Royal features some familiar names, of which six get their kit off: the protagonists Sue Holderness (superb as Annie, John’s widow) and Lesley Joseph, excellent as her friend Chris, Deena Payne, Helen Fraser, Kacey Ainsworth and Kathryn Rooney.

Other lead roles are played by Ruth Madoc, Susan Bovell, Colin Tarrant (John) and Robert Gill, and there’s a cameo appearance from Strictly Come Dancing’s Camilla Dallerup.

There are plenty of laughs and lumps in the throat (as opposed to the lumps which appear on the stage and are partially obscured by strategically placed iced buns, cups and teapots etc) and truly hilarious moments when the photographer (Kevin Sacre) starts shooting. Here the ladies seek Dutch courage in a few vodka shots in a scene which is beautifully done.

The disease we all dread lurks in the background and is never far away, and there are tensions in the play’s second act, but the overwhelming message here is one of hope and guarded optimism.

So the story may be familiar and, in truth, the latest stage show offers nothing new – perhaps because there is nothing new – but it still makes for a splendid evening’s entertainment.

It leaves you laughing and feeling good, with a conviction that there’s more to the WI than jam and Jerusalem. And sunflowers and iced buns with cherries on top will never be quite the same again.