There are nights in the theatre for which you gladly queue round the block months in advance, secure in the knowledge that the magnitude of the screen star you hope to see outweighs any reservations about the play, the director or the ticket price. It was such considerations paved our way to Ingrid Bergman in Waters of the Moon at the Haymarket in the 70s, to Elizabeth Taylor in The Little Foxes at the Victoria Palace in the 80s, to Madonna in Speed-the-Plow and to Harry Potter getting his wand out in Equus
so it was with a similar feeling of excited curiosity we anticipated the stage rehabilitation - in the new cast of Calendar Girls - of the leopard-print legend that was the nation's favourite barmaid Bet Lynch, Corrie’s own Ms Julie Goodyear.
Not that this is really a star vehicle, she plays the third or fourth lead, a character listed as ‘vicar’s daughter, single mother and church organist’ although in a long white-blonde wig, stiletto bootees and sparkly accessories she appears to be dressed for the homeward leg of a particularly gruelling Country and Western tour of Tennessee rather than a tramp up the Yorkshire Dales.
It’s what you might call a ‘carpentry’ performance: she nails many of the comic lines, and screws others. But it’s a genuine delight to see this much-loved veteran of the longest running soap opera confront her core audience in her West End debut.
Apart from that, you could wonder what’s in it for Londonist readers and the answer’s not much: the story of the members of Rylstone Womens Institute who raised half a million pounds for Leukaemia research by posing tastefully nude for a calendar has been better chronicled in the 2003 Helen Mirren/Julie Walters movie. The story’s too well-aired to be gripping, the production too clumsy and cheap, and there are some truly terrible performances. It’s so not cool, it may even become cult viewing.
Hamish McColl’s direction is staggeringly uneven, mixing warm and naturalistic characterisations from the always-reliable Janie Dee and surprisingly strong Arabella Weir as the promoters of the calendar, and solid comic acting from both Goodyear and vintage sitcomista Rosalind Knight. At the other end of the scale is an appalling clumping knockabout turn by Helen Lederer as the prim chairperson of the WI branch.
This shoutily inaccurate, one-dimensional foot-stomping performance is one of the worst in the West End for a long time, although Kelly Brook’s dismally incoherent attempt at an upmarket golf widow runs it pretty close. The production also features the inexplicable casting of ex-BBC newsreader Jan Leeming as the Duchess of Yorkshire or somesuch. She looks bewildered as if she’s just doing it for Comic Relief, which she isn’t.
Photograph from www.juliegoodyearmbe.com
Calendar Girls continues at the Noel Coward Theatre until January 2010. Tickets £5-48.50 including a £1.50 donation to Leukaemia Research. Box Office 0844 482 5140 or through the website.