New Forest Players Ballard School, New Milton Darren Funnell 26 July 2023
It’s easy to sideline Calendar Girls as a bunch of ladies at the Knapeley Village in the late nineties getting their kit off for an alternative WI calendar to raise funds for a local hospital. Put your dental appointment on Miss October, if you please. A media storm driven by the quaint idea that ordinary women can stick their head above the parapet and do something different to raise funds for the community and to fight blood cancer. What it is, however, is an expression of loss. The human need for the bereaved to create meaning for the departed, as many do. Coming together as women to bind and hold in friendship. To find path through grief. Yes, to find a way through. When looked at with that lens it is not hard to see why Calendar Girls maintains deep public affection nearly 30 years on. It is an expression of togetherness but also of ordinary women’s voices being heard.
Now, look, a bun is a bun. Or, if you like, a teapot, a decorative spread, a sheet of music flowers or knitting. The money shots are in the script. The scene where all the ‘Girls’ are laid (or stood) bare are extraordinarily brave – not because of the acts themselves, but because the main female cast (and the many that auditioned) visibly believe and take strength from the underlying message and cause. That’s the real bravery on show here. Mirroring the originals.
All ‘Calendar Girls’ must feel connected or else the whole thing falls apart quickly. In the New Forest Players version, they are – in spades. Each ‘Girl’ has their own unique identity, authentic voice, and yet are functioning as a team to bring the story to life. At its heart is the relationship between Chris (Sarah Haberfield) and Annie (Judy Anders). Their motives, friendship, drive and bond are not always straightforward but both actors are excellent at unselfconsciously peeling back the layers and maintaining the heart and purpose of the show. The other actors bring contrasting attitudes and stories that beautifully complete the group. Jessie (Wendy Beaumont) brings wonderful sardonic insight to women of a certain age; Ruth (Dawn Cresswell) is super as she lifts herself up time and time again – to do the calendar; to – no spoilers! Celia (Bee Neal) brilliantly calls out the ennui of ladies at the Golf Club; and Cora, lovely Cora, wants a better relationship with her daughter but still bashes out a great piano tune and performance. All were splendid. It was also nice to see some new faces performing at NFP. Vanessa Turner (Marie) – a soliloquy to Cheshire – and Josephine Page (Lady Cravenshire).
There are ‘Boys’ in Calendar Girls but, as written, they are more to underpin the backstory or to force a change direction in the dynamic. Barrie Thring (John) inspires sympathy at his passing which is crucial for Act 1. Martin Bloor (Lawrence) helps the famous photography scene get laughs and affection. Neil Phillips (Rod) relishes a bad joke and helps push Chris’ story to resolution.
The Director, Lyn Lockyear, has a human touch when it comes to performances and understanding the narrative. It is a job superbly done. Technically, I understand the need to open the Ballard space to allow for all the ‘camera action’ but I did feel that the set was wearing its projected sunflower denouement on its sleeve a bit. It looked a little sparse and lacked properties. I wasn’t sure about the Yorkshire Dale backdrop which seemed to exist for one funny moment. I also felt the small wreath being changed periodically to show the passing of time wasn’t really needed. Maybe it’s written that way. The actors are singing carols and dressed in Santa suits? Is it Christmas? Finally, some of the music choices were a little overly sentimental for my taste.
None of that really matters, though. This production sung out loud, wore its heart openly, and continued to promote the fight against blood cancer. It had camaraderie, joy, laughs, tears and a fabulous cast and crew bringing home the drama, emotions and the message. In every important sense, a triumph. So much so that you may well have to ‘beg, borrow, steal’ for a ticket between 27 – 29 July (with Saturday matinee) at Ballard’s School. And bring some coins for donations at the end. The icing on the …er… Belgian Bun, perhaps?