Calendar Girls at Progress TheatreBy Caroline Cook
September 06, 2012
If you've seen Calendar Girls the chances are you’ll remember the bit where a bunch of older ladies get their kit off and stand around a piano for a photoshoot.
But while the concept of WI ladies getting naked helped make Nigel Cole’s film a huge success it’s not what the show should be remembered for, according to Progress Theatre director Aidan Moran. “It’s the smallest part of the show and people put so much weight on it,” he says, when we meet at the theatre before a rehearsal.
“It’s not that much of a big deal. It’s meant to be discreet, that’s the whole point.”
Although the nakedness plays only a small part in the play, it had a big impact on cast members, who gather around the stage to tell me what it was like. “It was nerve-wracking,” says Emma Sterry who plays Celia.
“But it was a laugh too,” adds June Bertrand who plays Chris Harper, the brains behind the nude calendar.
“We had a very good director who took the time to get us used to the idea of taking our clothes off and we have been rehearsing quite a lot so it’s pretty slick.”
“Hopefully no-one will get to see anything,” she says, before Liz Carroll, who plays Jessie, adds, “although you never know!” sending the ladies into a burst of giggles.
To rehearse the naked scenes the ladies started off in full clothes, gradually reducing it to dressing gowns, underwear and then nothing.
And what did their other halves think of the ladies baring all on stage? “It was my husband’s idea,” laughs one of the group.
“I think mine was quite concerned about what would be seen and what wouldn’t be seen but he’s used to me doing things so he makes a fuss and then goes ‘oh okay’,” says Emma.
The cast have working on their Calendar Girls bond since June, starting with a WI-style tea at the first read through and then planting sunflowers outside the theatre.
“Sunflowers are the favourite flower of John, the character who dies,” explains Aidan. “He writes a speech about it before he dies and that gets read out.”
In the play after John dies from leukaemia his wife Annie and her friends from the Women’s Institute decide to make a nude calendar to raise money for charity.
When the media gets wind of the idea it catapults the group into the limelight, but they struggle to deal with the sudden fame and the impact on their personal lives.
Although the film is punctuated with witty one liners, Aidan says it was important for Progress to bring out the emotion in the show.
“There are several ways you can play it,” he explains. “We are focusing on the relationship between the calendar girls. There’s quite a resonance for people who have suffered from cancer and we have several members of the cast who have known people with cancer. It really brings it home.”
At the audition stage the actors were asked if they had any connection with the story which prompted dozens of anecdotes from the auditionees.
“Everyone had a story and that was quite emotional,” says Ali Carroll who plays Ruth. “There are some scenes which always bring tears to my eyes like the letter reading where we read letters from people who have been affected in similar ways.”
But despite the heavy subject matter the show is widely accessible and thoroughly entertaining, which led to it picking up a string of awards including Best Comedy Film at the British Comedy Awards.
For 19-year-old Progress newcomer George, the show has been something of an eye-opener, as he plays photographer Lawrence, who snaps the ladies in the buff.
“It was that first thing of getting to know people, so I know them really well now!” he jokes. “It’s been interesting, I can’t say it’s bothered me. We all work as part of a team.
“As well as all the girls having to be happy with each other there’s a 19-year-old lad coming in to stand taking photos of them naked,” he says.
The cast, though, are keen to bring home the charitable message behind the show.
The rights to stage the play have been released to amateur groups for the first time this summer with groups around the country putting it on to raise money for charity.
Progress will be holding several fundraising performances for different charities, as will Woodley Theatre, which is performing the show later this month. There are a few finishing touches to be made, but the show is already packed with drama and comedy when I catch a glimpse.
And although there’s plenty of fine acting and some spot-on comedy moments, you know that everyone is probably going to be keeping an eye out for the naked bit.
The Progress Theatre's production of Calendar Girls is at The Mount from Thursday, September 13, to Saturday, September 22. Call 0118 960 6060 or visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk