Published on October 26th, 2012 | by Vikesh Godhwani0
The Ultimate Crowd Pleaser.
MADC’s Calendar Girls was one of those rare occasions where all the necessary theatrical elements came together to create something truly special. However, it wasn’t just the top notch cast, seasoned director, and witty script by Tim Firth that made it work; it was the heart. This production had so much heart that I was almost hesitant to critique it as I was so taken by it, that looking out for microscopic faults seemed superfluous.
The story follows best friends Annie (Nicola Schembri) and Chris (Polly March) on their path to raise money for a new settee in the local hospital waiting room, after Annie’s husband, John, loses his battle to leukaemia. After persuading four other Women’s Institute members, Celia (Nicolà Abela Garrett), Ruth (Marta Vella), Jessie (Sue Scantlebury) and Cora (Isabelle Warrington), they all pose nude for an “alternative calendar” in order to fulfil their aim. This invites lots of press and media attention and in turn this makes the calendar greatly successful. However, friendships are tried and relationships are tested as the calendar girls deal with this new found fame.
Productions that attempt to balance humour and drama often fall flat as they feel awkward and half-hearted in both genres. However, in this case it’s definitely the strength of the production as Tim Firth’s script effortlessly blends poignancy with side-splitting hilarity – when the audience wasn’t roaring with laughter it was on the verge of tears, making it the ultimate crowd pleaser.
The production was perfectly cast as the predominantly female ensemble became figures of women that one comes across in daily life; in these women one could find their mother, daughter, grandmother or even a little of oneself, and perhaps that is why the audience was so responsive. The chemistry between the actresses was undeniable, mixing the more seasoned actresses with rising talent that will certainly be gracing the Manoel stage for many years to come. Among the veterans was Polly March who gave a spirited performance of Chris with impeccable comic timing and great likeability. Her bond with Nicola Schembri’s Annie was one of the production’s many strengths as their friendship and its ups and downs presented much of the humour and poignancy of the play. Schembri gave an emotional performance that beautifully captured the picture of a woman grieving her husband’s loss, while trying to honour his life.
The younger members of the ensemble also provided praise worthy performances giving the elder members of the cast a run for their money. Nicoà Abela Garrett’s Celia exuded confidence and sassiness, providing some big laughs and served as fantastic comic relief when things got serious. Marta Vella’s Ruth was perhaps the most lovable character in the production as she played her with a child-like innocence and naivety that make her almost impossible not to root for. When she does have her shining moment, it’s definitely one of the pivotal episodes that the audience has been waiting for, as the girl who parades in ridiculous outfits for a lot of the play has finally become a woman who can stand on her own two feet. The great clarity in this transformation says a lot about how versatile Vella is as an actress as she provided some of the biggest laughs of the night and yet moved the audience to applause during a more dramatic monologue.
Isabelle Warrington and Sue Scantlebury perfectly rounded up the calendar girls as they both gave commendable performances as Cora and Jessie respectively. Warrington played Cora with a highly entertaining rebellious streak while Scantlebury delivered her lines with a sharp wit that played to the script’s cleverness. Ninette Micallef played the chair woman of the WI club, who refuses anything that might be considered improper and is scandalised by the mere thought of a nude calendar. She plays the part perfectly as her every word is uttered with a certain snobbery that makes her a character that the audience love to hate.
The necessary testosterone came in the form of Lawrence, the photographer (Alan Paris), John, Annie’s husband (Paul Portelli) and Rod, Chris’s husband (Chris Hudson) who were all very strong in their respective roles as they gave a male perspective on the situation. Paul Portelli provided some of the most touching moments in the play’s first half as a man who is losing his battle to cancer but puts on a brave face for his wife, while Alan Paris’s comic skills shone in the photo-shoot scene. Chris Hudson provided the right balance to Polly March’s great energy and vitality on stage, and their on-stage chemistry was unquestionable. The supporting cast were also top notch as Marylu Coppini, Francesca Briffa, Annemijn Rutgers and Micheal Mangion all elevated the production to even greater heights.
Director Nanette Brimmer has wanted to stage this production for about two years, making it a passion project, which is clearly evident in the final result. Knowing that the production requires a rather basic set and strongly depended on the strength of its leads, she still found moments for visual splendour. The play was a challenging one to stage , especially in certain technical portions, most notably the photo-shoot scene when the ladies strip down to their birthday suits. However, it is done so tastefully and technically that all the props are meticulously placed in order for it to be the most hilarious scene in the play, rather than one that leaves little to the imagination. Only a director with such great precision could have pulled it off, and Nanette Brimmer once again proved that her great attention to detail is second to none.
Opening Act 2, in one of the strongest monologues from the play, delivered flawlessly by Polly March, Chris says “Some things are bigger than (council) approval” and this message is loud and clear throughout the play. These actresses were brave to strip in front of hundreds night after night at the national theatre but it’s a small price to pay if it means spreading awareness and trying to raise money to cure this “conniving” disease, as a portion of the money from the tickets sold goes towards helping the Hospice Movement, giving yet another reason why “Calendar Girls” is a definite must see. The sheer joy that I felt at the end of this stirring play is almost indescribable and I highly recommend everyone who hasn’t had the pleasure to witness it, to do so this weekend as the run of this uplifting production comes to a close on Sunday at the Manoel Theatre.