Marlane O’Brien, Burgandy Code, Francine Deschepper, Martha Irving and Shelley Thompson star in Calendar Girls, at Neptune Theatre to March 29. (Stoo Metz)
Calendar Girls is a heartwarming comedy with a dream cast that got an immediate standing ovation on opening night.
Director Jeremy Webb puts a crisp, fast-paced, nicely-nuanced spin on this British tale with Nova Scotia powerhouses Shelley Thompson, Martha Irving, Francine Deschepper, Burgandy Code and Geneviève Steele. Joining that glorious sisterhood is Sharleen Kalayil — a strong, loveable presence as the quiet, polite Ruth.
Based on the acclaimed 2003 movie and a true story, Calendar Girls is a two-and-a-half- hour journey to a Yorkshire village where members of the Women’s Institute have a bold idea for the annual calendar.
Their idea is to celebrate aging female bodies in a humorous way by posing nude while doing traditional WI activities of baking cake, making jam, knitting and crafting.
Along the way their friendships are tested and strengthened as they learn more about themselves and each other.
Apart from their high-strung, proper chairwoman Marie (Geneviève Steele), these women are misfits who can’t cook or craft well and really prefer to drink and talk.
Shelley Thompson and Martha Irving, who are good friends in real life, are marvellous together as the comedy’s central characters of Annie and Chris. They bring a lot of detail, playfulness and emotion to their roles. Thompson makes Annie’s grief painfully real and central to this comedy.
Martha Irving as Chris and Shelley Thompson as Annie in Neptune’s production of Calendar Girls. (Stoo Metz)
Annie is a down-to-earth, sensible character whose husband is dying of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. (This lovely husband is beautifully realized by Daniel Lillford who chisels a small part into a gem.)
Chris is the sparky ringleader who pushes the women into making the calendar for a visitor’s sofa in the hospital in honour of Annie’s husband. She is motivated by her love of Annie or is there more to it?
Francine Deschepper aces the blond bombshell, trophy wife who is trying to fit into the town’s elite by playing golf. Marlane O’Brien is very relaxed and natural as Jessie, the retired school teacher who isn’t as buttoned-up as one would think. Burgandy Code brings a great singing voice and solid characterization to Cora, the choir director who’d rather sing R and B than Jerusalem.
Geneviève Steele’s extreme character steals the show briefly in a wonderful piece of physical acting when Marie tunes up her body to play badminton.
The first act is wonderful as the audience gets to know all the women, laugh at their sometimes acidic interactions, and then rev up for a finale of the calendar photo shoot which is hilarious and beautifully staged in terms of pacing and props and the giddy liveliness of the actors.
The second act follows a familiar plot line. Just as the calendars become a success against all odds the women start to fight amongst each other. Each reveals and resolves a secret or conflict as the play revs up again to a pitch-perfect conclusion, visually and emotionally.
John Dinning’s set and props are grand with a church interior of heavy wooden arches that lift to expose a sunny hillside for the sunflowers Annie’s husband loved to grow. Dinning’s design is uplifted by Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting with costumes by Jennifer Goodman that frequently change and are good signifiers of different character traits and of each character’s growth.
For this bleak month of March Calendar Girls is guaranteed to make you laugh and shed a tear and exit the theatre feeling good about people and the world.
For this month of International Women’s Day it’s great to have a middle-aged women’s story on the stage and to celebrate some of the province’s fine women actors, most of whom are Merritt Award-winners. Also on stage in smaller roles two more fine Nova Scotian women actors in Mauralea Austin, a three-time Merritt winner, and Gil Anderson, a Merritt Award-nominee for the Realistic Jones. Rounding out the cast are Jim Fowler, also playing a lovely, loving husband, and Zach Faye, who is very comical as the Lawrence, the young photographer. John Dinning’s set includes a hill with a garden. In the background is Daniel Lillford as John with Martha Irving and Shelley Thompson in the foreground. (Stoo Metz)
Calendar Girls runs to March 29:
Tuesday to Friday – 7:30 pm
Saturday and Sunday – 2 pm & 7:30 pm
Key Dates: March 10 – Industry Night
March 11 – Talkback Night
March 25 – Relaxed Performance