By Tim Firth
Directed by Hamish McColl
Venue: Festival Theatre, Chichester
Date: Tuesday 23rd September 2008
The set for this will take some explaining. There was a rectangular platform on the stage, basic brown with the markings of a badminton court and a piano in the corner. Very village hall. The back wall was dark at the bottom, with a lighter top half, and a curved edge between them representing hills in the distance. As the play started, there was a lone voice singing Jerusalem, and the back wall lifted up so that the characters could come on stage, and the back part of the village hall could come forward, giving us a hatch to the kitchen and some stairs to the outside, as well as some walls to hang bunting on later.
Most of the characters formed up on the platform and began doing something which could pass for tai chi, while Elaine C Smith, as Cora, carried on singing Jerusalem on her own, varying the words a little as she got onto the second verse. From here, we follow the lives of these six women as they learn of John’s illness and death, and do their naked photo shoot to make the charity calendar. All of that takes up the first half, and while the story is much as expected, there are important differences. For a start, they’re only allowed to mention six of the women because the others no longer want anything to do with the story. And the nude bits had to be done with care, as the Festival Theatre is a seriously thrust stage, and the audience were almost completely surrounding them. There was very little detail on show, but plenty of humour as the ladies bared their flesh for the camera. The final shot, for December, had them all draped over the piano singing carols, and ended the first half.
The second half followed the amazing popularity of the calendar, and the effect it had on their lives and relationships. The play didn’t cover the trip to America, understandably, but we still got the bust up between Chris and Annie over Chris’s desire for the limelight. The final scene had all the women visiting a section of hillside where sunflower seeds had been planted, and admiring the blooms. For this, the platform was tilted – this had already been done once or twice for outdoor scenes – and the cast opened up the flaps which were covering the flowers, and lifted them up. It may have taken a bit of time, but the effect was lovely, especially through my tears. A couple of tourists arrived and want to take a picture, and the women are quite taken down when they find out it’s not the glamorous calendar girls they want, but the sunflowers.
I loved the way this play covered much the same story as the film, but brought out different aspects of the story. The lives of the other women came much more to the fore, and that gave it more balance. It was also easier to see how difficult it must have been in that small community to have made that choice and actually posed for the calendar. The performances were excellent, and it was more of an ensemble piece than the film. It’s not often now that a play really celebrates what it is to be human, warts and all, and I felt uplifted to have seen this tonight, as well as enjoying several lots of sniffles. As someone commented in the post-show, there just aren’t the dramas in any medium showing us these sorts of lives, or women of these ages and these backgrounds, and allowing them to have a voice. This one will fill that gap for many years to come, I’m sure.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me