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Calendar Girls as presented by Newcastle Glees

Calendar Girls as presented by Newcastle Glees:

Date of Adjudication Thursday 21st March, 2024.

I can only begin by repeating what I have said on all the occasions on which I have seen this show. Every society in the country should add Calendar Girls to their ‘Must Do’ list. It is as heart-breaking as it is heart-warming, and a show that seems to completely unite a company in their sense of purpose. Not only that, but every time the show is presented, there is an out pouring of donations to local Cancer charities, supporting their wonderful work in prevention,

cure and care. On this occasion, Friends of the Cancer Centre will be the beneficiaries of a percentage of the box office and collections each night. Such charity is a lovely knock-on from the joy of presenting a show that was pretty perfectly paced, visually and technically

warm and welcoming, and which brought out the best in the company of performers.

Laura Kerr’s direction of this show was clean, simple and natural, allowing the story itself to take centre stage, and it’s a story that must be told with honesty and an enormous amount of empathy. Laura recognized the need for that honesty, humanity and balance, and the result was beautiful. She used the limited stage space very effectively, allowing the action to spill from the stage and into the audience, which only served to make us feel more included in the story. While there were some lovely original comedic touches added to her production, they were never allowed to overwhelm or to upstage the true story.

The set for the show was a simple enough affair, consisting of a neatly painted Yorkshire hills background with panels that opened to reveal the inside of the local WI hall. All and any other locations were created with pools of light, and were more than sufficient. Lighting was good, with lovely isolations and good colours to give the correct atmosphere to each scene. There was good movement of props and furniture by the crew, under Stage Manager, Clair Williams, along with her team and members of the cast, with no fuss and very few pauses. The sound quality throughout was very good. While largely uncomplicated, the technical details of the show provided a mellow and comfortable surround to a story that is very much more about the people and their emotions.

There was a simplicity to the wardrobe, the hairstyles, the make-up and the dressing of various scenes, with everything being appropriate and correct without being in any way remarkable. It was all very pleasing on the eye. Much great work went in to supplying the large numbers of props, especially the baskets and buckets of brightly coloured flowers, the variety of food for the photoshoot, and there was lovely detail in the Tribute signs and various banners.

But above all, it’s the real people in this story that make it so compelling. It was the quiet dignity of Emma-Jane McKnight, in the emotional roller-coaster of a role that is Annie Clark, that touched the heart-strings in such a poignant way on so many occasions throughout the show. The depth of her love for her husband John, the fear of losing him and the way in which she coped with his passing were all so tender and empathetic. But it was the little details, like how she reacted to seeing the plaque in honour of John, and that mixture of joy, pride and melancholy when she eventually sees the new sofa, dedicated to her husband, that brought a tear to my eye. And through it all, she was able to laugh at herself, and laugh with

her friends. A joyous, emotional and dignified performance, which was enhanced by a passionate delivery of all her songs.

There was a wonderfully natural ease about Emma Nugent’s performance as Chris, the protagonist whose crazy ideas led to the decision to do a naked Calendar. Very much at home with being the ‘wild one’ of the ladies group, her astute sense of comedy went hand in hand with an equally enchanting sensitivity. Her most telling scenes were when she had to reassess her motives, but when she struck a blow for her friend, for cancer sufferers and for women in general, her sincerity shone through. A heart-warming performance, enhanced by a strong and assured vocal quality.

Fiona Keegan could have worn the name-tag Cautious Cora, such was her reluctance to entertain the idea of a nude calendar, but with her rendition of ‘Who Wants a Silent Night’, we were allowed to see the sparkier side of her personality, and a sense of fun that guaranteed she’d go that extra mile. This was a feisty performance, combined with the sincerity of her relationship with her son, and rounded off with a strong vocal quality.

Suzanne Smyth gave a delightfully comedic performance as former air-hostess, Celia. Her pretentiousness as a golf wife was very funny, but when she unleashed her old-self, she was adorable. Thanks to creative choreography, and her own good delivery of the vocals, ‘So I’ve Had a Little Work Done’ was a wonderful number.

Retired school teacher, Jessie, was played with wit and wisdom by Susan Leneghan, who hilariously shocked everyone with ‘What Age Expects’, and refused to be stereotyped. In her first major role with the Glees, Susan’s performance grew in strength and stature as the evening progressed. Very nicely played.

Orla Russell was Ruth, the hyperactive backbone of the WI, always engaged in baking or organizing, but all in an effort to compensate for her failed marriage. She played the part to a T, and with good self-effacing comedy. But when she took to the Vodka and released her inner spirit, she was resplendent in her willingness to be one of the girls! Her story ended happily when she had the strength of character to ditch her lousy husband, and the audience loved her new found confidence. This was such a good characterization.

Director, Laura Kerr, couldn’t resist going on stage, and she cast herself perfectly as the stick-in-the-mud Chairwoman of the local WI, Marie. Bossy and blustery, despite the efforts of the others to keep her in line, she played the role with good pomposity, all in an effort to disguise her own failed family life and her lack of control over her belligerent daughter. This was strong character acting, always at odds with the other ladies, but eventually recognizing their strength as women.

As her daughter, Jenny, Katy Keaveney seemed to really enjoy being the attitudy teenager, teasing the boys and disregarding her mother, but she showed her worth as a character and as an actress in the way she eventually turned the corner and showed maturity and consideration. Very nicely played indeed, and with an impressive voice.

The men were led by unfortunate John Clark, beautifully played by Chris Mooney, and as with his stage wife, it was dignity that made his performance so heart-breaking. Despite his condition, he fought the good fight with humour and concern for his wife, never falling into morose depression or self-pity. He sang very well and got the nature of his character just right.

I liked the gentle humour of Rod, nicely played by Allen Gordon, who accepted his crazy wife’s unpredictability with good grace, never lacking in appreciation of her good intentions. Equally accepting of his wife’s temperament was Finbar Finnegan as warm-hearted gentleman, Colin. And completing the husband’s group as sporty, and supportive, Dennis, very nicely created by Campbell Evans.

Francis McKinney, as Danny, and Luca Keaveney as Tommo, got good value out of the comedy of their roles as virgin teenagers on the prowl for their first sexual experience. Luca was hilarious in misreading the signals from Celia, while Francis enjoyed the growing, flirtatious relationship with Jenny. Very nicely played by the lads.

Sean Trainor showed good comedy and the right amount of modest as Nurse/Amateur photographer, Lawrence. He had a good natural patter with the girls during the calendar shoot.

There were good performances too, from Debbie Edgar and Sheila Paolinelli, as Miss Wilson (Tea) and Miss Wilson (coffee), quietly going about their catering duties, and then delightfully involving themselves in the tops-off brigade for the photo shoot. Annemarie Martin was a good blustery Brenda Hulse and Jenni Kerr had the right amount of grace and superiority as Lady Cravenshire.

With hints of The Hired Man and Last of the Summer Wine, there is a beautiful English rural feel to most of the shows musical score, and Musical Director, Mark Tilley, handled it with a lightness that was most appealing, aided, of course, by a finely tuned who seemed to enjoy their playing. Where it was appropriate, they added strength and bounce to the rhythms, but handled the mellow, emotional pieces with great delicacy. Similarly, the fine harmonies of a well-drilled chorus were very evident and sung with passion. There isn’t a great amount of chorus work in this show, but in all they had to do, they were individually and collectively strong and committed to their scenes. Despite there being minimal opportunities for dances in this show, choreographer, Clare Donnelly, made her mark with some clever and creative ideas, including a Maypole dance and a troupe of Morris dancers at the fair, and a hilarious safety-routine performed by a very strange collection of hairy air-hostesses, during ‘So I’ve Had A Little Work Done’.

The Newcastle Glees are such a warm and friendly company and my visits have always been most pleasant. Thank you to all concerned, one again, for a great and emotional night of entertainment.

Peter Kennedy

Gilbert Adjudicator 23/24

Photos shared by the society


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