Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

cast girls

Guest speaker Brenda Hulse, (left), played by Alison Cahill, whose talk on broccoli was (thankfully) curtailed by suddenly faulty equipment with chairwoman Marie (Ziona Smith) and the broccoli deprived assembled WI. Pictures: Emily White

Calendar Girls

Highbury Theatre Centre


When Angela Baker lost her husband, Yorkshire Dales national park officer, John, to non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1998 it set in train a global phenomenon which is still rolling today.

Her fellow members of the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute rallied round and came up with the idea of a calendar (yawn, oh yes, views of Yorkshire again?) to raise funds in John’s name. But it was to be a WI calendar with a difference.

Now there is nothing new about what we might euphemistically call adult calendars, as anyone who has ever worked in a garage, or sold Pirelli tyres would know. What was new were the models.

Instead of the pouting, suggestive stereotypical idea of female perfection, a posh way of saying lust, the 1999 alternative WI calendar was to feature ordinary housewives doing ordinary WI things like flower arranging or baking, real women, all shapes and sizes, mature and even more mature, people you really would meet in the street in the Dale’s villages, and all with their kit off - all nude.

Oh, and we learn that the calendar poses really are nude, not naked, a distinction which seem to rest on the, should we say, discrete positioning of the buns.

The story spawned a hit Hollywood film, a stage play and even a Gary Barlow musical and is currently lighting up the stage at Highbury with a wonderful production which is funny, sad and at times moving.

The WI is now based in the fictional village of Knapely. Dave Douglas is John, whose leukaemia takes him before the interval. As the disease progresses he judges and displays the deterioration both physically and in his increasing difficult speaking to perfection.

john annie

Dave Douglas as John and Louise Grifferty as wife Annie

His wife Annie, played by Louise Grifferty, was his rock and gives a solid performance as the grieving widow keeping her feet on the ground as the fundraising threatens to get out of hand.

The hand in question belonging to her best friend Chris, the local florist, played with wonderful timing and infectious fun by Pip Olliver – who can do things with carnations you would not believe.

There is Cora, played by Rebecca Higgs, daughter of the local vicar, church organist and unmarried mum, whose daughter has vanished to France to look for her missing dad,

Then there is Kate Pilling as Ruth, reluctant to be seen naked, but who comes around, partly because she finds her husband is having an affair.

No such qualms about being in the buff from Jessie, the retired teacher, played by Sandra Haynes, whose lifetime of dealing with children has prepared her for anything, and much the same attitude of bring it on, or perhaps more take it off, could be said of Celia who plays golf as it is the only time she sees her husband.

Played by Maggie Lane, Celia hates the ladies of the golf club but she loves the idea of having her assets on display, especially as it will give the ladies of the golf club apoplexy.

This is Yorkshire though, so with the sunny outlook must come a little rain in the shape of WI Chairwoman Marie, she of the booking of soporific speakers and desire to do a calendar depicting 12 Wharfedale bridges. It is a nicely affected performance from Ziona Smith.

Marie’s other interest is sucking up to the local landowner Lady Cravenshire, who is given a superior air by Julia Mewis.

With the models on board and the costumes, or in this case, lack of them sorted, all that is needed is a photographer, so enter John’s nurse Lawrence, who became his friend at nearby Skipton general hospital. Lawrence is played by Jake Collyer, with a nervous demeanour bordering on fear at the sight of the assembled landscape of female flesh.

Mind you, Jake is awash with confidence when he reappears in another guise as Liam, the director of a remarkably tacky soap powder ad as Chris’s enthusiasm is perhaps getting out of control as she is seems to be wanting to turn the calendar girls into an industry.

Still, at least the ad debacle gave Ruth a chance to lay into Elaine, played by Amy White, who was her husband’s bit on the side. Out being his most likely side in the future one suspects.

Adding his support is Rod, Chris’s husband, played by Ken Agnew, who sees his wife’s obsession with the fund raising taking its toll on the florist business – she even forgets a wreath for a funeral.


Cora (Rebecca Higgs), left, is concerned, Jessie (Sandra Haynes) is untroubled, Marie, in the background, has no idea and Ruth (Kate Pilling), standing front, is against it - it being appearing in the nude

The happy band of women are fused into close camaraderie once John dies. From having a friendly social club, they now have a mission and a naked, quite literally, ambition.

The real story though comes once the calendar is out and the world’s press flocks to the Dales. The hope was to raise £500 for a new sofa for the relative’s lounge in the cancer ward, at the end of the play we are up to half a million, which is one hell of a sofa, and letters of support, of thanks and of gratitude are arriving from around the world.

And the seeds of John’s favourite sunflowers he had left as his legacy are in flower on the nearby hill above Knaplely.

The play, the film and the musical, and, most important, the real story of the Calendar Girls, are all about friendship, about hope and about determination. The script, by Tim Firth, has some lovely lines, but they are lines that need good delivery and the cast manage that with good Yorkshire grit and spot on timing from Jessie’s throwaway lines to Ruth’s hesitant worries, Cora’s concerns as the church organist and of course Chris and Celia’s joie de vivre.

The cast bring the characters and the story to splendid life all helped by Steve Bowyer’s lighting design programmed by Tom Birkbeck and operated by Mike Lloyd.

Lighting is a key component ensuring that the audience can see, and, just as important, not see at the relevant moments.

It is a brave production for any cast, amateur or professional, with the Calendar Girls . . . au naturelle, so mistakes in lighting, and of course positioning, can change nude to naked very quickly.

Tony Reynolds’ sound provides a wonderful variety of versions of Sir Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem including a slow and emotional classical guitar version. It might be a theme song of the WI but is also an evocative tune used in such films as Chariots of Fire.

Malcolm Robertshaw’s set gives us a typical, uninspiring community hall with an ingenious roll on sky and hillside.

Director Denise Phillips has instilled a good pace and the result is a glorious production of a moving story. It is fun, sad, risqué(ish) and a lovely evening of entertainment. To 24-06-23.

Roger Clarke


The real Calendar Girls have raised in excess of £5m for Blood Cancer, or Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research as it was then. They wanted 1,000 calendars to sell at a fiver to raise £5,000. The printer said it wasn’t worth printing less than 5,000 so they did with a back up of pulping and making logs with any left over.

It was launched in April 1999 in the local pub and by October the pub had shipped out 56,000 calendars and 88,000 were sold in the UK that year with another 240,000 in the USA, while, at one point, about 400 letters a day were arriving.

If you fancy your own copy of the original calendar they are selling around the £800 mark on eBay! 

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