Calendar Girls connects, with humour, poignancy
Knapely Parish Hall, artfully created by stage designer Graeme Nicoll, is the setting for the opening of Unity Theatre's spirited production of Calendar Girls. The camaraderie of the cast, built over several months, befits the group of women who take the mickey out each other and enjoy a drink. They are rambunctiously at odds with the staid values of the Knapely Women's Institute. Among the most spirited of them is Wendy Dewstow's character Chris, best friend of relative newcomer Alyssa Thompson's Annie. The story hinges on Annie's husband John who lives with terminal cancer and whose decline is poignantly played by Arran Dunn.
After John's death — a departure elegiacally delivered by Dunn — Chris talks the women into making a nude calendar to raise funds to buy a settee to replace the hospital waiting room sofa.
Where Dewstow's character is outgoing and mischievous, in the Julie McPhail-directed production, Thompson's is softly spoken and restrained. The moments in which we see Annie and John's love for each other is when Thompson's performance is at its most assured. Having got through a well-received opening night her stage presence will no doubt amplify in confidence.
Cast as Jessie, community theatre veteran Dorothy Fletcher clearly relishes playing a character who makes a virtue of her maturity by not taking it seriously. Kate Gilmore as solo mother and vicar's daughter Cora plays the most conservative of the group but Gilmore brings to her performance a mix of inner conflict, not just with the prospect of posing nude for the camera, but with her past.
Paula Hatten plays anxious, repressed Ruth who has her own problems at home but Hatten also brings a comical ditsiness to her character the audience warmed to. Charli Haskell too is well cast as the vivacious Celia and brings both lively girly-girl and rebel colours to her character.
As the Women's Institute snooty chairwoman Marie, Natasha Ashworth takes the acting to another level with a masterfully understated, highly nuanced performance. Like Ashworth, Pam Sanders' Lady Cravenshire is not seen in the show as much as the other women but brings a hilariously recognisable type to her matronly poshness.
As photographer Lawrence, and a bloke, Simon Marino delivers a characteristically confident performance. He seems to have restrained a little the verve seen in previous performances, possibly because this is, after all, the women's story. Hugo McGuinness brings an avuncular tone to his character Rod and also delivers a restrained performance. Another community theatre veteran, Fraser Grout, as TV commercial producer Liam, presents, as ever, an unforced, clearly defined, clearly heard character.
Lapses in pace, projection and presence are often the bugbears of community theatre productions and while the Calendar Girls cast as a whole is easy to warm to, greater projection is needed to maintain connection with the audience, even in an intimate setting like Unity's theatre.
Nicoll's stage design deserves special mention. The bare timber walls, noticeboard and chair rails of the church hall setting are so authentic you can almost smell the dust. With a deceptively simple but surprise innovation, Nicoll's set transforms into a completely different setting. While the art of it is to be marvelled at, the design does not detract from the actors' performances.
Many people's lives are touched one way or another by cancer and the Calendar Girls cast's performance resonated with that connection with humour, poignancy and ultimately, triumph.
■ The Calendar Girls season is fully booked but anyone who would prefer not to attend due to the return to Level 2 can request a refund from firstname.lastname@example.org or private message Unity Theatre via Facebook.