Scrap that calendar entry and arrange a date with the girls!

When ‘Calendar Girls’, the real-life story that became a movie and then a play, first released the rights for a finite number of amateur theatre groups to perform the play earlier this year, there was an international scramble that saw the Copenhagen Theatre Circle one of the lucky few selected to put on the play.

Staged at the Krudttønden theatre in Østerbro − which boasts barely 100 seats, most of which were filled by women − it is not a stretch to say that the opening night audience became just as much a part of the Rylstone Yorkshire Women’s Institute, at which most of the action takes place, as the cast themselves.

Despite the inevitable opening night script-stumbles and prop-fumbles, the cast were wonderfully in sync with one another, and alternated smoothly between the humorous (a hilarious Maureen Egerup as Jessie proclaiming stony-faced that she would not do “front-bottom” nudity) and the sombre (the uncomfortable silence when John Shennan takes off his hat to reveal a post-chemo bald head).

Dealing with the big C as subject matter isn’t easy. Memories of the shameless tear-inducing sentimentality of ‘A Walk to Remember’ and ‘My Sister’s Keeper’, mixed with the horrific morbidity of try-to-laugh comedies like ‘Funny People’, make it difficult to imagine how on earth something like ‘Calendar Girls’ works at all – and yet we seesaw from heartache to laughter, between the triumph of the Calendar Girls and Annie’s loss of the man that she loves. Yet not once are we asked to pity Annie, the heart-wrenching Sarah Cox, but instead her pain is set not in contrast to, but in line with the dilemmas that each of her friends are facing.

Each of the Calendar Girls, and even the repugnant WI dictator Marie (played by a wonderfully tight-lipped Debbie Taylor), are carrying pain behind their playful banter and well-worn fronts. Whether it’s the well to-do pushover with the cheating husband or the chavtastic preacher’s daughter with a broken heart, the actors carry each of these imperfect women with such care and compassion that each laugh they get is that much funnier because it is oftentimes filled with real sorrow. We laugh because it’s real; the women on stage could be anyone of those sitting in the audience.

When it came to the portion of the evening when the camera came on and the clothes came off, each woman took her turn to be photographed in varying degrees of nakedness, with household items used in creative ways as bodily cover-up (highlights included a plate of glazed muffins and two strategically placed teapots). Each revelation felt like a liberation, and not just for their characters, but for the women playing them as well.

The last scene, in which Annie finally makes a bittersweet farewell to her mourning, sent an audible intake of breath and collective sigh reverberating throughout the audience, followed by a rustling of makeshift tissues as people went to wipe their faces. Director Barry McKenna has succeeded where so many before him have failed – to be funny without mocking and to be serious without being trite. CTC’s ‘Calendar Girls’ walks the fragile line between laughter and sadness, because though it might be set in Yorkshire, that’s where it really takes place.

Calendar Girls