Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Calender Girls and Critics

Don’t believe everything your read - critics don’t always get it right. The reviews for the play, Calendar Girls, were not enthusiastic. I suspect that some of the time critics – whether food, theatre or book critics – write negative reviews because they feel they have to justify themselves. I guess it can become tedious: watching yet another play, reading ones twenty-fourth book this month, eating out…again.

Perhaps they figure that there are only so many superlatives and so much praise that any reader wants to hear. They feel the need to be edgy, perhaps contentious. The press do love to shock, to stir things up. To get a reaction.

Of course I like to read reviews before I see an exhibition, go to a show or visit a restaurant. And they are often illuminating. But, as long as they are not thoroughly damning, I take them with a pinch of salt. I have learnt that critics don’t always get it right. And this goes for the reviews I read about the Calendar Girls, newly opened in the West End.

The reviews were either condescending or dismissive. We already had the tickets. Lynda Bellingham, Sian Phillips and Patricia Hodge were the lead roles. A first rate cast. Surely they would not want to in something second rate. We were going, it would be an outing, it would be alright on the night.

And guess what? It was. In fact it was good and it was funny, well scripted and well acted. So how come the reviews were less than complimentary. Well, I think it has something to do with sex. This was a play about women, with a (nearly) all female cast, and jokes that appeal to women. And women of a certain age at that.

Now, what young male critic would get that? All the poor reviews I read were written by male critics. And most – like many in the youth obsessed media – were probably only half way to their three score years and ten. Now, how many of them could appreciate a joke about the nitty gritty of women’s lives.

Two of the reviewers wrote that once the actresses had got their kit off there wasn’t much left to the play. For them that was obviously the raison d’etre of the play. That was to miss much that they probably thought derisive.

The play is based on the book. The story – as you probably all know – is about a group of Women’s Institute ladies. The husband of one of them dies of cancer, and they decide to raise funds for research. The calendar, on which they pose tastefully nude, raises a great deal of money and makes them famous.

But the play is as much about morals as anything – nothing to do with nakedness – that success can go to ones head, that jealousy is destructive and fame and fortune don’t equate to happiness. And that appearances are not everything, but life and the support of friends is all. And the message of the play works because it’s not preachy, or glum.

There’s a bit of pathos in the second act, yes, but like the best of messages it all goes down best with a good swig of humour. But obviously not the sort of humour appreciated by a jaded or sophisticated critic. Fortunately there are enough WI members and mature wives out there to appreciate the gentle jokes and connect in some way with the wider message. That alone should make Calendar Girls critic proof.

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