“Calendar Girls,” a 2009 play based on a hit 2003 film, is Tim Firth and Juliette Towhidi’s comedy about six middle-aged women from a village in Yorkshire, England, who decide to raise money by doffing their clothes.
It’s all for a good cause. One woman’s husband recently died from leukemia, and they want to purchase a settee in his honor at the local hospital. To amass the funds, they decide to pose nude for a memorial calendar.
The British film starred Helen Mirren and became a major success, grossing nearly $100 million and garnering Golden Globe nominations for Mirren and co-star Julie Walters. The play is being presented at Conejo Players Theatre in Thousand Oaks through June 17.
Although the film received raves for its warmth and broad comedy, the play—like many stage productions that are drawn from films—has trouble replicating the movie’s rich atmosphere and regional setting. As a result, it has received mixed reviews when it’s been performed around the country. The Conejo Players’ production overcomes much of this with a well-cast sextet, excellent staging and set design.
What is missing from the play, however, is the distinctly British flavor of the film, especially the bucolic Yorkshire County setting in Northern England. CPT’s production does a great job using two elaborate sets designed by Dick Johnson, which swing back and forth on casters during scene changes. (Problems with the mechanism resulted in opening night being delayed for 24 hours, but when we saw the show, it worked perfectly.)
The ladies posing for the calendar are all members of the local Women’s Institute, a community organization focused on domesticities like cooking and homemaking. The humor of the play is seeing how these modest, prim Brits find humorous ways of retaining decorum while modeling for the bawdy calendar.
Unfortunately, the British flavor of the story has all but been bleached away. None of the performers speak in British accents, resulting in such distinctively English words like “bloke,” “blimey,” “bloody well” and “bollocks” coming off as oddly misplaced, like a Sherlock Holmes mystery set in Palm Springs.
Despite this, the actors, led by Dana Weisman as Chris, do a great job defining each of their distinctive characters, and they have wonderful chemistry together.
The cast features Joanne Zahorsky Reeves as Annie, Lynn Thorne as Cora, Rita McCaffrey as Jessie, Carla Ames as Celia and Mary Alice Brady as Ruth.
Erin Fagundes has some funny moments as the WI’s prudish chair Marie, while Daniel Krause (as Chris’ florist husband), Jeff Ash (as Annie’s dying husband, John) and David White (as the embarrassed photographer) make for effective set dressing. The delightful Elena Mills steals her brief scene as the posh, patronizing Lady Cravenshire.
In the final scene, the ladies return to the WI and resume their practice of performing tai chi on a charming sunflower-laden hillside, the flowers planted by the women to honor the departed John.
The fun of “Calendar Girls” has to do with the notion of what has come to define British humor— time-worn concepts that include deadpan understatement, repressed attitudes about societal taboos, sexual innuendo and social absurdity. Without these things, even a great cast such as this will have a hard time saving a play that had a lot of problems going into it.
“Calendar Girls” is affectionately directed by Deidre Parmenter with wonderful costumes designed by Laura Comstock.
A calendar identical to the one used in the play—with photographs of the actresses in character, utilizing the same poses as seen in the story—has been produced as a souvenir. It’s available to purchase at the theater and proceeds will go to Cancer Support Community Valley/Ventura/Santa Barbara. It’s a wonderful touch.
“Calendar Girls” continues through June 17 at Conejo Players Theatre, 351 S. Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks. For tickets, call (805) 495-3715 or go online to ConejoPlayers.org.