Women the world over are baring their buns on stage in am-dram versions of the smash hit play Calendar Girls. We meet a Barnsley actress for whom the role is so very close to home...
A group of extraordinary women, members of a very ordinary North Yorkshire WI sparked a global phenomenon back in 2000 when they persuaded one another to pose for a cheeky naked charity calendar.
The uplifting story of the unique way in which the Rylstone ladies banded together to support fellow member Angela Baker when her husband John died from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, touched hearts around the world.
The women raised millions for cancer research from their Alternative WI calendar and inspired thousands of copycat versions plus a hit movie starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters.
A 2008 version of the film was created for the stage ran in London’s West End for a year and became the most successful play to ever tour the UK.
Now it’s the turn of amateur dramatics societies to retell the story by disrobing and posing behind their cupcakes and teapots. For just 18 months, the amateur rights for Calendar Girls have been released.
From this month, local theatre companies the length of the country and as far away as Canada and Australia are slipping off their dressing gowns and baring their buns - in the best possible taste - to put on the Calendar Girls show. That includes the cast of Barnsley’s LS Theatre Productions.
Their version of the smash-hit play runs until September 15 at Birdwell’s Academy Theatre. In the spirit of the original Calendar Girls, the ladies have posed for their own charity calendar.
Sheffield photographer Nigel Taylor gave his time free and the 2013 comic caper, on sale for £10 a time after each show, has already raised £400 for Weston Park Hospital. Proceeds from the play will go to Barnsley Hospice and Leukaemia Research. For tickets, £10 and £12, call the box office: 01226 744442 10am-4pm.
Calendar Girl facts
For the real life calendar, John Baker’s wife Angela was Miss February.
John Baker grew sunflowers from the onset of his illness and gave them to friends and family in the hope that he would have recovered by the time they flowered. Sadly, this was not the case, but the sunflower lives on as a reminder of John’s life and has become a symbol for Calendar Girls’ fund-raising.
The man who took the pictures for the original WI Alternative Calendar was semi-professional photographer Terry Logan, husband of Miss January, Lynda Logan.
The original calendar enjoyed sponsorship from British parliamentarian Glenda Jackson.
The film suggests local and national WI chapters were opposed to the calendar, but there was actually emphatic support for the project from those bodies.
To date Rylstone WI has raised more than £1.5 million for Leukaemia Research.
Cathartic experience of role in stage show
Even Oscar winners find tears the hardest. But for Jenny Crummack, a Barnsley mother of two for whom the stage is no more than a hobby, the tears are coming all too easily right now.
Jenny, a softly-spoken, demure blonde, is the star of the much-loved play Calendar Girls, currently running at Birdwell’s Academy Theatre.
And by the time the last curtain falls on September 15, there’s a fair chance Jenny will be all cried out. In a good way. She is giving the performance of her life, quite literally, in the lead role of Annie, the character who loses her husband, Mike, to cancer and finds her way through the bleakness of bereavement with the help of her close friends at the WI. Uncannily, it is exactly what happened to Jenny.
She knows the pain of watching the man you love die. She lost her Mike, husband of 32 years, a joiner and Barnsley born and bred, in April 2003.
She’s lived with the loneliness of widowhood. And she has experienced the healing power of female friendship; it was to the members of Staincross Church Ladies’ Group that she turned for support when her world came crashing in.
So, those tears on stage as Jenny takes Annie through the death of her husband; they are only too real.
“I relive my loss every night on our little stage,” she says. “It brings the worst time in my life to the forefront of my mind again. But actually, it’s proving to be a kind of closure for me,” she explains. “The play is very much about dealing with life again after you lose your partner and how friendship can help you to heal and move on. By the end of this play, I feel I will have finally put Mike to rest.”
Calendar Girls first touched her life nine years ago. She went to see the movie version of Rylstone WI’s true story six months after Mike’s death and found herself laughing and crying helplessly in the darkness of the cinema.
“I felt a connection to the character of Annie, based on Angela Baker. I became so intrigued I went to see the stage show several times. And now here I am, posing as Miss March in a charity calendar and playing the character I felt such an affinity for.
“Mike would have loved it all and would have had such a laugh about me baring all for a good cause.
“He was there at every show I did, smiling with such pride and I believe he’s watching this one, too. I’m dedicating every performance to him.”
How Jenny found love again
Theirs was one of those old-fashioned, honest to goodness romances. Jenny and Mike fell in love before they had even met.
They became pen-friends at the age of 18 and as letters winged their way between Barnsley and Jenny’s home in Wolverhampton, romance quickly blossomed.
“It got so that I could hardly wait for another letter from Mike to arrive,” Jenny remembers. “There were lots and lots of letters because it was two years before we actually met, in Barnsley Bus Station of all places. He asked me to marry him just three months later.”
They settled in Barnsley and had son Ian, now 31, and Isla, 23. Mike eventually set up his own joinery business and Jenny was an office clerk with an abiding love of amateur dramatics.
She joined several companies plus the town’s Lamproom Theatre. Such was her commitment, she took a performing arts course at Barnsley College in 1995.
“I just love escaping from me,” says the actress who had a bit part in the iconic made in Sheffield film The Full Monty - she was one of the police officers who arrested the lads as they rehearsed a stripping scene in a derelict factory. She’s also had walk-on parts in Where The Heart Is and once played a stalked woman in a Crimewatch re-enactment.
It was to acting, and that escape, that she turned after the death of the man she had loved for 34 years.
“I threw myself into it and managed to do one play, but on the day the second one was due to open I realised I couldn’t go on. I felt like I was in melt-down. It was the Staincross Ladies’ Group who came to my side, calling the theatre and the doctor. I ended up on anti-depressants and it was two years before I could get back on stage.”
There had been just two years between Mike’s diagnosis of lung cancer and his death; it had all been so sudden and shocking. The children had been just 18 and 12 when their dad started his nine months of chemotherapy at Weston Park, the hospital where funds from the LS Theatre company’s calendar will be going.
They and everyone else had been convinced that their strong, easy-going, always positive dad would make it. And for a short time, it seemed like he had. He came out of hospital to start renovating their new home in Staincross.
But shortly after, he discovered the tumour had grown back. There was more chemo but no chance of recovery. “One day the doctor took me to one side and said: ‘It’s not going to be much longer’. It was like being punched in the stomach,” Jenny says.
“We didn’t tell Mike. He died at home, a few months later. He was only 52. He handled his illness so bravely and with a sense of humour. He reminds me lot of Mike in the play; he too refused to let his diagnosis get him down, or stop him doing things.
“Sometimes it doesn’t seem long ago he died. At other times, it seems such a long time. I still have flashbacks to that last day.”
For four years, Jenny devoted herself to her children and believed she would always remain single. She thought she could never love again.
But, in another echoing of the life of Calendar Girl Angela Baker, who remarried in 2005, Jenny found another soul-mate.
She met Rotherham heavy goods technician Brian Chamberlain in 2007.
“After four years I was ready to share my life again. I wanted to be as happy as I had been with Mike.”
She and Brian met on a dating website and conversed by email for several weeks. “It was like a modern-day version of the courtship I’d so enjoyed with Mike,” she says.
Their first meeting was at the opening night of a show she was appearing in.
“I’d told him I was too busy with the play to meet up and had no idea he had bought a ticket until a huge bunch of flowers arrived in the dressing room,” she recalls with a smile.
“When you become a widow, you think you will never love again. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Brian is such a perfect match for my personality I feel as if Mike has hand-picked him for me. I’m lucky to have found two such wonderful men to share life with.”