September 18, 2008

Showing Off Their Knits and Buns The Hit Movie Calendar Girls is Now a Stage Show – so How Do the Stars Stay Decent?

By Shona Craven

WHEN a film is adapted for the stage, or vice versa, any concerns about the transition usually relate to artistic aspects - the tone, set or casting, for example. When it comes to Tim Firth's adaptation of his own Calendar Girls, perhaps the biggest question anyone who saw the film will be asking is logistical - how will the creative team ensure that the modesty of its cast is preserved?

In the 2003 film, actresses including Helen Mirren, Julie Walters and Celia Imrie posed nude (certainly not naked) with strategically- placed objects including knitting, hymn sheets and, most memorably, cream buns.

Props will also be used in the stage version, but here there will be no second takes or opportunities for airbrushing. It might sound like a daunting experience for those playing the women who bare all, but this hasn't deterred some of Britain's best-known actresses from signing up to Chichester Festival Theatre's production.

Lynda Bellingham takes the role made famous by Helen Mirren, and her co-stars include Patricia Hodge, Gaynor Faye, Brigit Forsyth, Julia Hills, Elaine C Smith and Sian Phillips.

Welsh actress Phillips, best known for her role in the BBC's 1976 production of I, Claudius, and more recently Marlene, the Marlene Dietrich musical, plays Jessie, the prim schoolteacher who surprises her friends by being the first to volunteer for the calendar.

Did the septuagenarian performer have reservations about accepting the role? Not at all.

"I was in New York doing a play and they phoned me and sent me the script, " she says. "I just thought it was a very good play, very well-written."

Phillips had been busy working when the film was released and still hasn't seen it, but its popularity has no doubt boosted interest in the stage adaptation, which is selling out all over the country.

Co-producer David Pugh has been itching to stage the story of the Women's Institute pin-ups ever since their calendar first made headlines back in 1999. He was pipped at the post by Touchstone Pictures, but when the film's writer approached him about an adaptation he seized the opportunity.

Freed from the constraints of Hollywood, Firth has crafted more of an ensemble piece, which has been honed during what sounds like a fun rehearsal period. Phillips was already good friends with Bellingham, had previously worked with Hodge on A Little Light Music, and had "admired Brigit Forsyth from afar". And what about Elaine C Smith? "Fantastic, she's just wonderful, " enthuses Phillips. "I can't look at her - I try to pretend she's not there, because otherwise I'd just laugh!"

Phillips is no stranger to comedy herself, despite being betterknown these days for her work in musicals and serious drama. "The science of comedy was explained to me brutally at a very early age, " explains the actress, who gained plenty of experience playing the straight man at the beginning of her career.

Calendar Girls combines laughs with pathos, as the original project was a fundraising effort after the untimely death of one woman's husband from leukaemia.

"It's surprisingly moving, " adds Phillips. "It's very, very funny, but suddenly you're quite moved, and then you're back laughing again. It's never mawkish, never sentimental."

Glasgow is the first city on the show's tour schedule, which takes in Edinburgh a few weeks later, and Phillips is well aware that Scotland has a discerning comedy audience. "I do remember my firstever West End job, before it went to London, we went to Glasgow, " she says. "It was one of those not-verygood English plays, and when we came to Scotland we died a death. I learned from an early age that Glasgow could be a dodgy place - if it's not really funny they're not going to laugh."

The experience was no doubt difficult at the time, but Phillips learned to adjust her expectations. "When you're just out there making mud pies, doing the best you can with something that's not that good, they'll accept it down south to a surprising degree . . . but the further north you go, the chillier it gets." She has no such concerns about the "genuinely funny" Calendar Girls.

Despite the frosty reception that met her early appearance in Glasgow, the actress has plenty of happy memories of the city. She met her future husband, Peter O'Toole, on the tour, and stayed in digs on Sauchiehall Street. "I had just about the most riotous week I've ever had in my life in Glasgow, while dying a death on stage at the theatre every night."

She may be confident about the play evoking both tears and laughter, but might there also be nervous gasps as the ladies disrobe and attempt to conceal themselves behind flower arrangements and watering cans? "It's all deception, sleight-of-hand, " she assures. "We rehearsed the photo-shoot very carefully - for what seemed like months. There are props and disguises, and we shield each other at the crucial moments. The photo is just one flash and then we're on to something else and we've got time to put our clothes back on." A quick flash? Of lighting as it turns out. "There haven't been any disasters - there were plenty during rehearsals, of course!"

Calendar Girls, King's Theatre, Glasgow, September 30 to October 4; King's Theatre, Edinburgh, October 13 to 18.

Originally published by Newsquest Media Group.

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