June 2013. Directed by Bob Jones

Review by Ann Cox Leighton Buzzard Observer

With applause ringing in their ears the ladies from the Leighton Buzzard Drama Group learned a huge lesson on Thursday night – flesh sells.

They took the enormously courageous step in staging the award-winning Calendar Girls at Leighton Buzzard Theatre this week and they have discovered, and they shouldn’t have been surprised, that it is a smash hit.

Running for nearly two weeks it has been playing to full houses packed with WI groups, friends, families and the public who appreciate a good story that is well acted.

It’s all very well for the likes of Linda Bellingham and Helen Mirren to strip for their roles in the professional productions on stage and screen but it is a huge ask for amateurs. They have to appear in the all-together, on stage, in front of their neighbours and friends. Will they ever encounter each other in the same way ever again?

LBDG were delighted at the positive response among the town’s am-dram actresses when they first announced the production. It seemed that they were more than willing to shed their inhibitions.

And opening night proved they were right to commit to one of the most powerful dramas in modern theatre.

Calendar Girls tells the true story of a Yorkshire WI who, back in 1998, decide to raise money for a new hospital sofa in memory of a member’s husband who died. They decide to produce an “alternative WI calendar” featuring members of the group in a variety of artfully staged nude poses.

Instead of selling a just few dozen calendars the ladies have so far raised more than £3m for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, with Tim Firth’s story being made into a Hollywood movie and an award-winning stage play.

Now, for a limited time only, some amateur theatre groups have been given the rights to perform Calendar Girls and they couldn’t wait to get naked, sorry, nude.

LB Drama Group stalwart Lainy Ward, as single mum and vicar’s daughter, Cora, keeps the story bubbling along with her natural flair for comedy while, on opening night, Lauren Waters and Kim Aguilar, in the lead roles of Annie and Chris, became more assured as the show progressed.

But one of the most moving performances in the production comes from Carl Russell as cancer sufferer John whose death sparks the fund-raising campaign.

Not only does Carl bravely appear with a shaven head in his later scenes but he handles John’s courageous battle against leukaemia with the confidence of a seasoned pro. It sure brought a lump to everyone’s throats.

Babs Jolly was frighteningly convincing as Lady Cravenshire (which I’m not sure is a compliment!) while Renee Dulieu, as WI leader Marie, was a bit of a dark horse. She didn’t really put herself into the part until the second Act when she exploded in rage at Chris during one forceful encounter that scared the pants of most theatre-goers.

Emma Ballard does a great job with Ruth who is one character that is more fleshed out than some of the others. Ruth is a large lady who initially refuses to strip because she is crushed by self-loathing and poor self-esteem but, spurred on by her husband’s adultery, she decides it’s time to fight back.

When it comes to posing for the calendar this group of feisty actresses bravely hold their poses for a lot longer than the professionals and, in some cases, wear considerably less, and I salute them (as did everyone else with rapturous applause).

It’s one of LBDG’s best performances to date and all credit to director Bob Jones in guiding the cast through their stage-fright and coyness to produce a sparkling show that the original Calendar Girls from Rylstone WI would have been proud of.