Greater Boston's "Calendar Girls": Cheeky Britcom

Karen MacDonald, Kerry A. Dowling, Sarah deLima, Bobbie Steinbach,
 Maureen Brennan & Mary Potts Dennis in "Calendar Girls"
(photo: Nile Scott Shots)

One might as well grin and bare it, theatergoers, that cheeky 2003 British film comedy, Calendar Girls, has had a change of life, now being presented as a live theatrical production by Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham. Adapted in 2009 by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth (who also co-wrote the screenplay), the play version, as was the film, is based on a true story about eleven members (six, in this version) of the British ladies' club, the Women's Institute, in their small and peaceful village of Knapeley in the Yorkshire Dales. After Annie (Maureen Brennan) loses her husband John (Sean McGuirk), a “sunflower” of a gent, to leukemia, the other members set out to raise money for the Leukemia Research Fund (to provide a replacement for a “man-eating” settee for a hospital waiting room) by selling calendars featuring the ladies themselves nude (“not naked”, as they twice point out).

The unanticipated celebrity that the success of their endeavors creates threatens to cause a cleavage between Annie and Chris (Karen MacDonald), Annie's best friend, who welcomes the notoriety. The other ladies with varying reactions include: Marie (Cheryl McMahon), for whom the Women's Institute is a trophy; Ruth (Sarah deLima) Marie's right hand person, emotionally abused by her husband; Celia (Mary Potts Dennis) a rebellious sort who decries materialism; Cora (Kerry A. Dowling), an inveterate joker; Jessie (Bobbie Steinbach), a mature teacher; and Lady Cravensire, (Kathy St. George), an imperious representative of the British upper classes. Two remaining female characters are St. George again, in a brief appearance at the start of the show as a guest lecturer, whose next lecture threatens to be “the history of the tea towel”, and make-up artist Elaine (Jade Guerra). There are also a couple more males in the cast besides the ailing John, namely Rod (Michael Kaye), Chris' husband, another jokester, formerly John's best mate, and Lawrence (Nael Nacer), a shy hospital orderly (or “porter”) who conveniently also happens to be an amateur photographer.

Some of the intended humor of the piece got lost in translation to the colonies (references to plum jam and such), and in the disturbing noise during the first quarter hour (yes, one clocked it) of noisy late arrivals who often drowned out the actors on stage. One can surely blame the management for the very misguided decision not to delay the “curtain” but to continue to allow late seating of what seemed like busloads of attendees. One can also place blame on already-seated theatergoers who must have thought they were watching a televised Britcom, giving a quite audible running narration. In decades of theatrical attendance, this had to have been the rudest audience ever. Those who had never seen the film must have been struggling to comprehend the dialog on stage, which of course was an unforgivable distraction for the actors themselves. One had looked forward to seeing this particular group all together on a stage in the all-together, but a weak script and interruptions fought against it.

The basically one-joke first act text is a very long lead-up to the visual punch line of the ladies more or less nude; the entire second act was anticlimactic and could easily have been radically trimmed to a short coda after the scene everyone was waiting for (which went off without a stitch, to quote a bank's ad in the program). It's a shame that this production's cast outclassed the material, as Directed by Nancy E. Carroll. The creative team included Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord (an intentionally cluttered parish hall), authentically dowdy Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley and appropriate Original Music Composition and Sound Design by Dewey Dellay.

You may take time to enjoy the view until June 17th, as this cast is certainly not a bust.

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