Phoenix Theatre Company
21 to 29 April
By Lucas Ioppolo
I spent my Saturday afternoon in Doncaster attending a matinee for a change as Phoenix Theatre Company presented their adaptation of the record breaking stage production of Calendar Girls. When the original Calendar Girls film starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters was released in 2003, the movie going world was subjected to a beautiful true story of many middle aged Yorkshire women in a branch of the Women’s Institute who created a nude calendar to raise funds for cancer research when one of the branch’s member loses their husband to leukaemia. The British comedy quickly established itself as both a feel good movie and an instant cult classic and this certainly managed to transcend itself when Phoenix brought their retelling of the story to life on stage, especially with the 30th anniversary of the Cancer Council Victoria’s yearly fundraising event, Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea fastly approaching within the next few weeks. I can’t say for sure whether this was a deliberate move or not but regardless, it gave the production a much more moving and meaningful tribute to not only the original source material but to all those who survived, succumbed or still suffer from the debilitating disease that is cancer, honouring them all with each scene.
The mastermind behind this fabulous, feel good production was present in the director’s chair and even with just a few weeks rehearsal, the legendary Craig Maloney rose to the occasion to ensure he had the best cast and crew imaginable to help him present the perfect creative vision of Calendar Girls to the theatre going public. With his evergreen drive and many years of directorial experience, Maloney and his crew were able to paint a pristine picture of the strong sense of community present in Women’s Institute branches all across the United Kingdom despite a singular set through the use of costumes and props galore and he granted all of his performers the safety necessary to portray their respective characters in both the most commanding and compromising moments. If there was any shred of self-consciousness prevalent throughout the early stages of the rehearsal period, it had been believably transformed into self-confidence by the time the play was ready to grace the stage, with Maloney’s powerful and paramount directorial turn allowing every actor to let their colours burst and become the ultimate group of feminist heroes in their own right like their real life counterparts did in the late 90s.
It has been reported that multiple male actors turned down parts in the original Calendar Girls movie because they didn’t want to play second fiddle to the middle-aged female leads but in this production, there was no trace of sexism or ageism and if anything it really made the smaller supporting roles more impactful as the titular Calendar Girls’ support system. In the male cast, we were introduced early on to Rob Blowers in the role of Annie’s late husband John, Benji Wragg in the role of Chris’ husband Rod and later in the first act we were introduced to Alessio Russo in the dual role of the calendar’s photographer Lawrence and commercial director Liam. John’s character may have only appeared in the first few scenes before he succumbed to leukaemia but Blowers nevertheless made a huge impression on the audience by delivering a lively and loveable performance that left an imprint on us all, ensuring that his character was one of the most pivotal in the show and one portrayal never to be forgotten. Internally, the character of Rod may have been a bit more reluctant to the idea of the calendar, but Wragg did everything in his acting power to get across the fact that he would stand by his wife and her friends through and through in a sharp and sporting portrayal. Meanwhile, Russo proved to be a daring and dual talent in his two roles giving an adorable and angelic portrayal of the young photographer given the ultimate task of photographing the world famous calendar in a performance that quickly became one of the production’s favourites and a sleazy and shrewd portrayal in all the best ways possible of a media director who failed to see the message the calendar was supposed to represent and tried to oversexualise the calendar girls just to sell some laundry detergent in a shift that made his performances and acting abilities highly regarded throughout the production.
As for the supporting female roles in the production, each actress gave a colourful and crystallized performance of characters we quickly grew to love just as much as the eponymous Calendar Girls whether they were for or against the idea of the calendar and they were Emma Newport in the role of Marie, the head of the Women’s Institute branch where the calendar materialised, Patricia McCracken in the role of Lady Cravenshire, the local aristocracy of the village, Cathy O’Connor in the role of Brenda, a guest speaker at the WI branch and Natalie Krizmanic in the role of Elaine, the cosmetologist hired to do the calendar girls’ makeup for their television appearance. As the main supporting female role and the only role who was against the calendar almost every step of the way, Newport had her work cut out for her but she seized the opportunity to make the character her very own, a calculating and coordinated leader conforming to traditionalist standards who by the end of the show sees the light and despite Marie’s faults, Newport’s performance made her character difficult to hold a grudge against. McCracken on the other hand may have been portraying a posh and pompous individual who most likely would have been a traditionalist like Marie, but despite only being on stage for a limited time, she put a lot of pride and pleasure into her portrayal and her infectiously happy presence on stage succeeded in getting the entire audience smiling in a standout performance. O’Connor mainly appeared in one scene as Brenda, a woman who came to the WI to give a comical speech and presentation on broccoli (I’ll never forget that, I’m telling you), in a divine and delightful cameo role and in her few minutes of stage time had us laughing with her in an unforgettably comical moment that cemented her relevance to the overall story. Elaine was another unforgettable cameo role as she symbolised a pivotal moment of real character growth for just one of the Calendar Girls, Ruth, who’s husband is having an affair with Elaine, but more on that later. Krizmanic made her short time on stage count as the adulteress beautician who quickly goes on a journey from daringness to defeat, delivering a performance that was vain and vamp in all the best ways possible.
Now, we come to the Calendar Girls themselves but with prestigoous performances like the ones given by these six wonderful actresses who do justice for empowering women everywhere, they really should be known as the Calendar Queens for this theatrical presentation as they gave the show many key elements and they are Natalie Carden as Chris, Melanie Bouette as Annie, Kerry Parkinson as Jessie, Jennifer Mettner as Celia, Elizabeth Matjacic as Ruth and Maree Dunn as Cora. Carden gave Calendar Girls it’s theatricality for her portrayal of a woman who out of the goodness of her heart created something inspiring to help her best friend keep her husband’s memory alive and raise funds for research into the disease that claimed his life, gets hypnotised by the spotlights of fame but ends up coming through on her promise. Bouette gave the production its heart with her portrayal of a devoted widow who would give anything for one more moment with her husband and finds it in her heart to not only carry on for herself but for many others who lost the loves of their life to all types of cancer. Parkinson gave the show its wit with her portrayal of a local teacher who yearns to demonstrate to the world that age is just a number and is nothing to be looked down upon in her line of work and through her involvement in the calendar makes her dream prominent for women in every field. Mettner gave the masterpiece its fire with her portrayal of a sarcastic upper middle class woman who was left unfulfilled with her and her unseen husband’s society driven lifestyle but through the calendar’s creation finds satisfaction within herself. Matjacic gave the play its strength with her portrayal of soft spoken woman afraid to stand up for herself and her morals in order to please the universe and because of her involvement in the calendar project learns to fight for what she believes in and discovers the confidence she had all along deep inside. As for Dunn, she gave the classic its spirit with her portrayal of a pianist, shop owner and divorced single mother who attempts to make her daughter and God proud of her through the calendar and in the process, becomes proud of herself for the first time in years. Together, these fine performers delivered solid comedy and drama gold to the crowd with courageous and charismatic performances that inspire women of all ages through their heralded heroism and their purposeful presence in not only Melbourne’s amateur theatre circuit but the theatre throughout the world as a whole.
Our community needs more productions of empowering shows like Calendar Girls to be presented to the general public and Phoenix Theatre Company have done due diligence to deliver just that with a fulfillingly feminist fascination of quality entertainment with a side of wisdom and wonder and I look forward to seeing what other empowering approaches the company takes with their upcoming productions very soon. Special shoutout to Natalie Carden, Elizabeth Matjacic and Rob Blowers for their outstanding performances in the show, to director Craig Maloney for gifting me with a beautiful sunflower in the foyer after the show and to the rest of the cast and crew associated with Calendar Girls for a stellar start to their season and don’t forget to get your tickets while they’re still on sale, support the company and local theatre. Congratulations Phoenix for a beautiful production, thank you for allowing women’s voices to be heard and keep continuing to help keep this powerful spirit alive.
About the Author
Lucas Ioppolo is a community theatre performer with a passion to bring a positive energy and encouragement to those in theatre who have gone unnoticed or underrepresented. They hope their reviews can help bring the spotlight back to a community that has helped them throughout the years.
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