Chichester Festival Theatre, W. Sussex
Opened 16 September, 2008

Jonathan Church’s three seasons since taking the helm at Chichester have been masterpieces of trimming and diplomacy. They have balanced productions with intellectual and/or artistic bottom against those more likely to prove solid bankers with the theatre’s core constituency, which is largely neither young (not even in middle youth) nor radical. This summer, the likes of Rupert Goold’s jittery, electric version of Six Characters In Search of An Author (just transferred to the West End) and Ronald Harwood’s diptych of de-Nazification plays have rubbed up against an all-star (though unexciting) Cherry Orchard and a revival of The Music Man.
Tim Firth’s adaptation of his screenplay is a banker. The 2003 film was a heartwarmer, based on the true story of members of a Yorkshire village Women’s Institute who, following the death from leukaemia of the husband of one, hit on the extraordinary idea of publishing a nude calendar of themselves in aid of charity. The cast includes Elaine C Smith, Lynda Bellingham, Patricia Hodge, Siân Phillips, Gaynor Faye, Julia Hills and Brigit Forsyth: not just a bunch of strong actors, but a number of names whose prospective appearance in the buff could send a rush of blood to regions due south of many a cardigan. And they all (with the exception of Forsyth) do get their kits off; director Hamish McColl stages the photo sequences with a keen eye for what will and won’t be seen from out front, although he can’t account fully for the half-hexagon arrangement of the seating in Chichester. This may, for some, be an exceptional occasion when the best seats are off to either side.
Firth skilfully compresses the action so that all scenes take place in the W.I.’s regular meeting hall, and is as ever a dab hand at mixing sentiment with a rich northern English strain of humour. I noticed one single line that was unbearably maudlin, and the final visual coup is excessively cloying, but elsewhere the combination is just right. Phillips enjoys parodying her grande dame gravitas; Smith is something of a wild card; the kernel of the play is the friendship between Hodge’s and Bellingham’s characters. After seeing the latter in all her glory, you’ll never look at an old Oxo commercial the same way again.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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