Walking into the Lowry for a performance of Calendar Girls on Tuesday I was entirely unsure what to expect. Warnings of full-frontal nudity rang in my head as I entered and wondered what on earth I was letting myself in for! I had prepared for an evening of jollity and madness; I certainly hadn’t expected to be moved to tears.
Unfamiliar with the tale, I hadn’t realised that despite also being a joyous romp, Calendar girls tells the moving true-life story of some very brave women from Yorkshire who decided to do something a little different for their women’s institute annual calendar to raise money to support one of their own. John Baker, a respected and valued member of their community, sadly lost his life to cancer in 1998, leaving his wife Angela and two children behind. The women of the community soon rallied around Angela’s idea to raise money for a memorial sofa to be put in the local hospital ward that had cared for John- little had they known it would involve them posing naked for the calendar!
The play offered a witty, thoroughly entertaining and above all touching re-telling of the story, with music written by Gary Barlow and a phenomenal cast combining to make it a night to remember. Anna-Jane Casey, most well-known for her roles in East-enders and Coronation Street brought the house down and received a well-earned standing ovation for her role as John’s wife (named Annie in the play) and had me in tears with her rendition of Kilimanjaro. Gary Barlow certainly knows how to grab an audience by the throat with lyrics such as “There’s no Mt. Kilimanjaro you can show me that compares, to climbing solo with some cocoa up a lonely flight of stairs…”. Yet he showed equal talent in inducing the audience to tears of mirth with other more humorous songs such as “I’ve had a little work done”!
The play achieved a wonderful balance of touching tribute and hanky-stuffing humour, introducing brilliant sub-plots such as the children of the main character’s reactions to their mother’s outrageous plan and their day to day lives attending the local secondary school which helped to add to the picture of the rural community being portrayed. The set of the play, depicting a detailed and wonderful Yorkshire landscape complete with distant cottages, had a distinctly cosy, wintery atmosphere that was perfect for the time of year and fit brilliantly with the feel of the play as a whole. The wooden floorboard section of the stage fantastically captured the mood of a village hall women’s institute meeting on a cold autumn night, with attention to detail like the old rickety piano being decorated for harvest transporting the audience right into the rural village scene.
All in all the play offered perhaps one of the most unexpectedly honest and beautiful portrayals of grief and loss that I have ever seen. It unashamedly told a simple story about a woman learning to live again and the community that supported her through the darkest of times. The play offered a new perspective on life, encouraging the defying of the conventions of age and circumstance and telling the audience to do the unexpected, live life to the fullest and be happy, however hard. The play ended with a tear-jerking surprise, the arrival on stage of the real-life Calendar girls, proud and smiling, their heads held high, drinking in a scene they probably never imagined when all those years ago, they went to a village hall, took a deep breath and posed for a calendar.