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Opening Night Productions – Calendar Girls

We had no plans to review Opening Night Productions’ presentation of Calendar Girls last night at The Maltings Theatre.

We went along because we were determined not to miss out again, having been unable to attend the Duns Players’ performance of the Tim Firth play back in September – a production which by all accounts quite stole the heart of Simon Duke, arts and entertainment reviewer at The Berwickshire Advertiser/News. 

Now, you know of our crush on Simon here at NOT BAd HQ. You know how in humble awe we stand before his diplomacy and discretion. He lives and dies by the adage “If you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all,” something so alien a concept for us that we keep it in quarantine and prod it from time to time until we decide what to do with it. You see, we’re scared; scared that if we do one day decide discretion is safe to be released into the wider world, it will end up picking us all off one by one in increasingly inventive splashes until there’s no one left except the crazy old guy who came up with the idea of discretion in the first place as a way of defying death. Or something.

But Simon, Simon has no such fears. Simon has tamed discretion, managed to get tact to walk to heel; to put it bluntly, Simon has made discretion his bitch. He holds degrees in tongue-biting and teeth-sucking. His tombstone will be inscribed with the immortal exclamation “Nngrh!” much as Fritz would utter as he was taken out by a bullet in the classic comic Warlord.

And this is right and proper, for as a butterfly has evolved ‘eyes’ on its wings to put off potential predators, so Simon has evolved preternatural diplomacy necessary to avoid a fatal clubbing with a stovie in a sock.

So it must be with some trepidation that Simon faces the impossibility of undertaking an objective review of last night’s Calendar Girls by Opening Night Productions. And because of that, we’re going to say the few things that he might want to say if his DNA had mutated and followed a different path.

Look, we know you’re going to accuse us of having a girl crush on director Wendy Payn because she always comes out of these things relatively unscathed. Let’s be clear here – we only have favourites when money is involved. Wendy is simply good at what she does; she knows when to adapt or interpret and when to leave well alone. And on this occasion she left well alone, which was absolutely the right thing to do as the script contained everything the play needed. After all, this is a play centred on friendship; it’s not about clever staging and wanky metaphorical representations.

The amateur cast did a great job of delivering a tight and pacy script. Jackie Kaines took on Chris – the role played by Helen Mirren in the film; Linda Bellingham in the original stage play – managing to capture effectively her infuriatingly pushy but well-meaning persona. Her transformation from galvanizing force to egotistical monster was genuinely uncomfortable to watch, and surely one of the best scenes in the show has to be the slap-down delivered to Chris by doughty WI branch leader, Marie (Angela Winson). Beautifully done, Angela!

The relationship between husband and wife, Annie and John (Cheryl Stewart and Barry Jones), is one of the most touching aspects of the production, and so convincing. John is diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prompting Chris to suggest putting together the infamous calendar of a naked Knapely WI members to raise money for a new settee for the visitors lounge in the hospital where John was treated.

Our throats ached when Barry finally got up from his wheelchair and walked off-stage leaving his wife behind. (Audible snivels, so bring tissues.) A special round of applause should be given to Barry for stepping in just last week to take the part of John owing to a last-minute emergency. Barry is an am-dram stalwart and swiftly picked up the strands and patted them into something seamless. Wonderful.

Producing a near constant stream of laughter, the script is a delight, and much of the comedy can be found in the characters of Ruth, Cora, Jessie, and Celia. These characters provide light relief from the growing tension between Chris and Annie, and – not something often said in the same breath as am-dram – there were some perfect moments of comic timing, notably from Sue Handoll as Jessie, who casually dropped dry one-liners with the devastation of a grenade. Don’t be fooled by the innocent little old lady vibe Sue is rocking. There are whispers that the eighty-one-year-old has been involved in professional performances in the past, and it shows.

Hats off to Angie McKeown (can we have your legs please? STUNNING!) for turning in a fine performance as single-mother Cora, and to Ros Lister for her refreshingly natural portrayal of bored housewife Celia, who has a penchant for low-cut tops. Wendy Payn exuded just the right amount of naive bubble-headedness as Ruth without ever tipping over into caricature. They all bounced off each other as a believable group of friends.

Mark Pentecost (Chris’s husband, Rod) and Ross Graham (Liam and Lawrence) provided effortless support (bwah-hah-hah! Did you see what we did there?) to the ladies. Two safer pairs of hands you couldn’t hope to find (we’re here all week). But remember, both these guys are professionally trained so naturally we never expected anything less. Tamsin Davidson, a familiar and welcome face from the Berwick am-dram scene, ably doubled up as Lady Cravenshire and Brenda Hulse; and Katie Hindmarsh, you slut, you. Good job as Ruth’s husband’s extra-marital affair.

Now, boobs – those bouncing gifts God granted to the marketing industry. There’s no getting away from it, they’re a big draw, perfect for getting bums on seats. Curiously though, in last night’s production the audience consisted mainly of women in much the same way as The Vagina Monologues. While this is a play about female friendship, it isn’t overtly feminist so, gentlemen, we recommend you go. It’s funny. Really funny and, yes, there are boobs.

Actually, scrap that. Don’t come for the boobs. Anything smacking of a mammary flavour is very discreetly handled – although we suppose Jackie Kaines sporting strategically placed flowers isn’t technically discreet – and the most you will see is Angie’s right buttock. Seriously, you could take your kids to it without leaving any emotional scarring.

No, as we say, Calendar Girls is primarily about the bond between friends; it manages to balance laugh-out-loud moments with aching sadness, and illustrates the tension and generosity inherent in any friendship.

So anyway, what’s wrong with it?

All right, then. But first get up and go and stand in front of a mirror. Now stand there and look natural. We said look natural. No, that’s… relax your arms. What do you mean, you don’t know what to do with your arms all of a sudden? They’re meant to hang like… no, not like… put them down… oh. Not easy is it?

The hardest thing in the world for an amateur actor to do convincingly is nothing.

You know those moments when out walking and you suddenly forget how you normally walk and one arm swings one way and hits the other and then you develop a funny bounce?

That’s what it can be like on stage. All of a sudden you don’t know where to put your arms. You’re fine in dialogue, you deliver your lines like a pro, but when you’re not directly involved with the talking you suddenly become screamingly self-conscious. You slip out of role and back into your own skin, all too acutely aware of three hundred pairs of eyes boring a hole into your I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-it head.

So. Moments of that then. First night nerves? Yes, partly, but it’s more to do with lack of experience. This wasn’t a production of broad strokes, such as a farce or a panto where you can get away with standing oddly and gurning.

An amateur production of  ‘Hamlet’ – the famous soliloquy

As always, Wendy chooses something which requires a bit more precision, some subtlety. Which, in turn, means the audience is looking more closely, becoming more intimately involved. If a cast member feels uncomfortable, the audience will pick up on it and the illusion being spun around them will falter.

When a play demands acting over performing, it’s always best to think small. Smaller movements, smaller facial expressions. Small. Not infinitesimal – you’re not on telly, dahlings – more like allowing an expression to happen rather than making it happen.

Pacing on the whole was good, just struggling to find its feet at the start of both acts, but swiftly recovering and maintaining rhythm.

No, not a perfect production, but the last perfect production we saw involved David Suchet, so there you go. However, it was a very, very good amateur performance and what it lacked in any professional execution it more than made up for in warmth, spirit and laughter. A gentle and uplifting feel-good play which brought the house down. And really, what more do you want?

All right, Simon? No, we don’t take cheques. Cheeky sod.

If you haven’t got your tickets for tonight and tomorrow you better get a wriggle on. They’re selling fast.

Calendar Girls by Opening Night Productions, The Maltings Theatre, Berwick-upon-Tweed, 7.30pm on 16th and 17th November, plus 2.30pm on the 17th November.

Please help raise money for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research by purchasing a Berwick Calendar Girls 2013 calendar, a snip at £7.50. You can do that here.

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