If you’re familiar with the very basic plot of Calendar Girls, you might walk into Limelight Theatre ready for something slightly slapstick and a little raunchy, and if that is what you’re looking for, you won’t be disappointed. But that isn’t all that’s delivered by this delightful cast – Calendar Girls is so much more. It’s a tale of loss and of pain, of bravery and confidence, loving yourself and loving those around you. It’s heartfelt and genuine, full of authentic and nuanced emotion, expertly positioned amid shameless jokes and a bit of nudity.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, though, let me give you the rundown. Calendar Girls takes place in the village of Knapely in the Yorkshire Dales and centers around six women who make up (most of) the local Women’s Institute – Annie (Francesca Bellavista), Chris (Suzanna Reed), Celia (Anna Hobbs), Jess (Mary Martin), Cora (Grace Reed), and Ruth (Vanessa Warner). When leukemia takes the life of Annie’s husband, Annie and Chris decide to raise money in John’s name to replace a horrendously uncomfortable settee in the waiting room of the local hospital.
But their idea is a little crazy – instead of the Women’s Institute’s typical annual calendar (featuring delightfully boring photos of local bridges), the women want to create a nude calendar. Not naked, mind you. Nude. Something tasteful, that implies rather than reveals. And it takes some convincing (of all the women as well as the National Women’s Institute), but they’re able to get the go ahead on the calendar.
With the help of a local amateur photographer, the women plan out poses in traditionally feminine settings – pies and knitting, pianos and frilly aprons. And the calendar is a hit – a big hit. News spreads across the world of this calendar and its mission, and the women are approached by new outlets and media of all kinds. Well, I won’t spoil the ending for you, but as always, fame isn’t as glamorous as it seems, and the tension mounts as the popularity of the calendar grows.
It’s easy, in a story like this, to focus on the humor and scandalousness. But the show and the brilliant actors on stage don’t pull any punches, and they don’t shy away from the heavy overtones (and sometimes overtones) that the plot deals with. It’s a story about strength through loss. It’s a story about the realness of cancer and the impact that camaraderie and a community have on the healing process. It’s a story about female friendship and a story about personal confidence at any age.
The six main characters are nothing short of enchanting together. They have real chemistry on stage that makes you accept their friendship without hesitation. Suzanna Reed and Francesca Bellavista (of whom the script asks the most) show a beautiful range and an ability to switch effortlessly from the rhythm and timing necessary for quick wit to the weight and substance of more murky subjects. They work marvelously together and carry the mass of the show gracefully.
But as much as they are the protagonists, they don’t carry the show alone. Because beside them are four other women who offer jokes and earnestness alike with pinpoint timing and, without whom, the story would not be what it is. Anna Hobbs plays Celia, a trophy wife and the youngest of the group who knows she’ll be the most appealing on the calendar. She’s a character who, on paper, you probably wouldn’t think you’d like, but Anna’s portrayal of her is so down-to-earth that you don’t mind the overwhelming confidence in herself and her looks. It’s endearing and delightful.
Mary Martin’s Jess is confident but in a different way. She offers support and enthusiasm for the project, a little unpolished but unpolished with charm. Grace Reed’s Cora is outspoken and deliciously irreverent (despite being a preacher’s daughter) and has the most interesting backstory. Reed uses this backstory to add real nuance to her character that draws you into Cora’s life and motivations. Timid and mousy, Vanessa Warner’s Ruth has the most intriguing character arc. Like Celia, on paper you might not expect to like a character who cows down to her peers and brown noses the head of the WI, but her relationships with the other characters as well as the confidence that she finds by the end make her decidedly enjoyable.
The six women take up most of the stage time, but they are supported by a spot-on group of smaller characters. The head of the WI, Marie (Evelyn Lynam) is delightfully tyrannical, but you can’t help but love her. John (Leonard Alterman), who we only meet briefly, brings heart and poignancy to his short time on stage. Rod (Bob Mandzi) is fun and funny as Chris’s husband but also offers a dose of real life to the somewhat starry-eyed protagonist. Lawrence (Rich Curran-Kelly), Brenda (Teresa Harris), Lady Cravenshire (Vivian Lampard), Liam (Zachary Racine), and Elaine (played by Jennifer Latka when I saw it, but also played by Jennifer Farrow) add their own individual charm to a playfully patchwork cast.
There is but one brief criticism that I would offer to this lovely show. The story takes place in Yorkshire, and though the location is not essential to the plot, it and the English culture within which it exists is mentioned with some frequency. However, saving Francesca Bellavista and Vanessa Warner (who are English and Irish respectively), there are no English accents to speak of. With the British cultural references, geographical references, and mention of the far-off United States, the lack of accents becomes a bit distracting and can, during some of the jokes, take you a bit out of the action.
Regardless director Bob Pritchard does a fabulous job and the unforgettable cast is brilliant on stage. Calendar Girls is a can’t-miss this season.
One small note for our readers – as the plot would imply, this is not a show to bring the little ones to. Though there is no full nudity (after all, it’s a nude calendar not a naked one), the actors are nude on stage with censorship.
Calendar Girls is onstage from May 17 – June 9. Showtimes are 7:30pm from Thursday – Saturday and at 2pm on Sundays. Advance reservations are encouraged. Tickets are available at www.limelight-theatre.org or by calling (904) 825-1164. Photography by Sharon Friedes.