I must be a very strange man. Never quite understood why folks get so upset about nudity. Do it all the time when pruning the roses on a hot day. But not everyone has a streak of exhibitionism and, if you ain’t of that ilk, being naked can be daunting. Even in a good cause. So those Women’s Institute Ladies of Calendar Girls fame were pretty brave. They took their knickers off in memory of a nice man who loved sunflowers and died of cancer, and Tim Firth captures it all in his very funny and sad play of the same name. The performers who evoke that spirit on stage are theatrical chips from the same Yorkshire block without the excuse of a charity cloak to hide blushes. Fortunately the play is skewed to convincingly cover most of the undraping and in Wheathampstead Dramatic Society’s splendid production it was mainly emotions which were laid bare. The dirty mac brigade must have been bitterly disappointed.
I wasn’t. I loved director Julie Field’s slant on this piece which shamelessly played with your senses. One minute you were laughing your head off at pithy and acerbic lines, sharply delivered, and in the next, to evocative music, you were suppressing large gulps in your throat. There was hardly a moment in the evening when you did not feel totally involved with the people on stage. The major strength was those six ladies who shed their clothes to buy a memorial sofa. In an impeccable piece of casting the sextet combined beautifully to present magnificent individual flawed characters and collective northern grit. This was teamwork of the highest order. Jan Westgarth (Chris) expertly led the team and revealed a private ambitious agenda and Viv Fairley (Annie) matched her with a sensitive portrayal as the grieving widow. Their opening in Act Two, addressing the Women’s Institute Conference, beautifully combined helplessness and aggression. Sarah Brindley (Cora) was a feisty organist with a troubled domestic life, Mary Watkinson (Celia) was a Miss September woman revelling in the recognition of her obvious attributes, and Sheila Scull (Jessie) a sharp and outrageously funny retired school teacher. On this performance Miss Scull can teach timing to a grandfather clock. Almost eclipsing them all was Barbara Suggitt as the inhibited and prudish Ruth. It was long odds against her taking her kit off and when she did the audience cheered almost as loudly as they did when she told her philandering husband’s beautician lover (a very nice cameo from Hannah Reeve) to ‘fuck off’. But as harsh as that retort was it rang as sheer and heartfelt truth. And that is what I admired most in these ladies. There was not a caricature in sight. All were flesh and blood and flawed. Under the laughter and the tears you could almost smell the Yorkshire pudding.
I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t find something to quibble about. The doc is giving me tablets for it. The episodic scenes were not always seamlessly linked and, on a composite set of church hall and fields, actors were often unimaginatively grouped. But frankly I did not care. I was captivated by the play and the highly crafted performances. In a cast in which there was not a serious weak link Jonathan Field also stood out for his loathsome tacky TV director and, especially, Robin Langer for his sensitive and well judged dying John. His last wheelchair scene almost broke your heart. He loved those sunflowers and he loved life. I reckon he would have liked what those women did in his memory. They scattered his beloved seeds and delivered a clever and poignant end. Lovely play, beautifully done. I left applauding those skilful and courageous ladies and a resolve to buy some sunflowers. Hides a lot more than roses on a naturist summer day. Roy Hall