Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region   ,

Photo: Susan Sinchak

Photo: Susan Sinchak

Calendar Girls

By Tim Firth

Kanata Theatre

Directed by Tania Carrière

The problem with a play like Calendar Girls is that it’s dangerously easy for it to come across as exploitive theatre and nothing more. Indeed, the sell-out houses currently being enjoyed by Kanata Theatre are clearly due to the subject matter — a group of middle-aged Women’s Institute members posing  in the nude for a charity calendar. The original film was a built-in hit for the same reason. And when screenwriter Tim Firth reworked it for the stage, the premiere London production chalked up advance sales of more than $3 million even before the show opened. The promise of titillation sells — but Firth’s script has sturdier aspirations than the need to display a bit of skin.

There’s no denying that Kanata Theatre’s production delivers some robustly funny moments near the end of Act One when the various participants in the calendar project — some quaking with anxiety, others proudly assertive —  start disrobing for the camera. That’s when various concealing objects — flowers, bits of fruit — come into discreet play as the women display themselves in the not-quite altogether.

It’s in these moments that director Tania Carriere, supported by certain of the performers,  finds an amusing comic rhythm, brings off some lively visual moments and orchestrates a succession of fleshy displays — while ensuring the material’s essential innocence. Unfortunately, Carriere seems to have expended all her currency on these scenes and ignored the remainder of the play. The sustaining strength of the story is not the desire to appear nude but the sense of community among the members of this Yorkshire Women’s Institute chapter. They may be ready to cock a snook at their stuffy chairwoman. They may be rallying to the support of the recently widowed Annie in seeking an unorthodox way to finance the acquisition of a new sofa to be placed in the lounge of the local hospital in memory of her dead husband. And they are undoubtedly beset by the rivalries and personal indiosyncracies that beset all such groups. But above all, they have to seem real. We need to get to know them and relate to them and to root for them.

These needs are rarely met at Kanata. Despite its pretensions, the script is often flimsy and a strong ensemble quality is necessary from the beginning to keep the material afloat. But no convincing sense of community emerges in the opening scenes — just various individuals doing their thing, and too often not very well.

The play is based on a real-life charity project, but it can be painfully condescending towards the very idea of women’s institutes — witness the spectacle of a simpering female attempting to deliver a slide show on broccoli, a feeble idea rendered even more so by flaccid staging in this production. And the script needs a capable cast to find substance in characters who are so often thinly defined. These needs are particularly important in a second act in which, the strip show having concluded before intermission, the material has no place to go. There is potential for some dramatic conflict in the testing of a key friendship, but these passages are so flatly handled that they fail to make us care.

It’s a sprinkling of individual performances that give the production some substance — Sarah Hearn, terrific as a gutsy vicar’s daughter; Bev Brooks, resilient and courageous as the bereaved Annie and always vocally credible amidst a mish-mash of floundering accents; Melissa McCallum, thoroughly convincing as Chris, the group’s quintessential organizer. But over-all, the production fails to recognize problematic play’s few solid strengths.

The Kanata Theatre production of Calendar Girls currently continues to May 21.

Set: Tania Carrière, Joe Cooke, Tom Kobolak

Sound: Robert Fairbairn

Lighting: Ron Francis

Costumes: Maxine Ball

Cast:

Cora………………………………………………Sarah Hearn

Chris………………………………………………Melissa McCallum

Jessie………………………………………………Catherine Clark

Celia……………………………………………….Lorraine McInnis

Ruth………………………………………………..Karen Germundson

Annie………………………………………………Bev Brooks

Marie……………………………………………….Ilona Henkelman

Brenda Hulse/Lady Cravenshire/Elaine……………Veronica Engelberts/Marla Israel

John………………………………………………….Frank Sasin

Rod………………………………………………….Michael Kennedy

Lawrence……………………………………………Chris Ray

Liam…………………………………………………James Renaud

WI ladies……………………………..Barbara Carrière, Kathryn Clarke, Sandy Wynne