Sex sells. The folks at the Granite Theatre in Westerly know that, choosing Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls as their current production. The audience had a great time, and for good reason. The script is touching, witty and at times, laugh-out-loud funny. This production had several challenges that worked against the script, but in the end this is a fun play.
Calendar Girls is based on the movie of the same name. When Annie’s husband, John, dies of cancer, the proper ladies of the Knapeley Village Women’s Institute decide to raise money for a new couch to go in the waiting room of the hospital where John was treated. They make international waves by creating a nude calendar to sell at the WI fair.
That’s Knapeley Village in Yorkshire, England. The entire cast tried hard to keep up English accents to varying degrees of success. Some cast members have clearly been working on accents for a long time, while others sounded like stilted New Englanders. Everyone’s accent suggested a different region or class, when the ladies made several references to how most of them were from the town. Fergus Milton, playing Rod, had a leg up since he’s actually from England, but this only emphasized the struggles in the rest of the cast. The accents were sometimes so distracting, it was difficult to understand lines of dialogue, which is a shame since this script does so much of the work for the cast and crew. With beautiful monologues like Jessie’s (Maureen Noel), talking about “the danger, girls, of age, is what you think age expects of you,” audience members don’t want to miss a syllable.
While the script is fantastic in terms of the dialogue, it did pose issues in the number of set and costume changes required of the actors. It made for a lot of dead time on the stage, and dragged out the timing for the show in ways that were unfortunately necessary. At times, it seemed like the set changes could have been better planned to be handled by actors rather than dimming the lights to have a crew member come out for a change so minor I didn’t see what actually happened. Other times, director David Jepson used the downtime to brilliant effect, such as when he had new clips in different languages playing to emphasize the national attention the calendar girls were getting. The actresses were clearly moving as fast as they could to accomplish all of their costume changes, but it would have been nice for them and the waiting audience if a designer had planned ahead. The production would have moved along at a better pace if base pieces had been used and minor costume changes made, rather than full changes every time.
Another issue working against the Granite Theatre production is that David Jepson is not only the director, but he plays John Clarke, the dying husband who is the catalyst for the calendar. Many of the scenes could have used a second set of eyes to help organize the blocking. In the first act, the actors end up lined up across the stage in uninteresting combinations, rather than really interacting with each other. When personal interactions do happen, they don’t feel natural or comfortable. We don’t see the years of friendship and care the dialogue describes. Jepson was able to spend more time directing the other actors in the second act, especially during the photography scene.
The scene when the calendar is photographed is the highlight of the play. The pacing is great in this scene. The ladies are full of nervous energy, and are clearly having a ton of fun. The actresses are having so much fun, it would be impossible for the audience not to. It also helps that Jepson was not in this scene, and could set the blocking so that the actresses could move quickly. There is no dead time here. There is partial nudity, but the folks at Granite handle it with grace and humor.
Calendar Girls is a flawed production with a lovely script. The actresses all work hard and manage to make the audience howl with laughter. Don’t go see this show if you expect the movie, but do go if you want a show full of soul and a lot of humor.
Calendar Girls is playing at The Granite Theatre in Westerly through July 30. You can purchase tickets by calling the box office at 401-596-2341 or by going to granitetheatre.com.