Flesh take on favourite

It's a case of life imitating art imitating life. Many of the cast members of Canberra Repertory Society's first production for 2013, Calendar Girls, are not only baring (almost) all for their art, but have also been inspired to create a calendar of their own.

But first things first. Calendar Girls was adapted by Tim Firth from the 2003 film of the same title he wrote with Julie Towhidi. It was inspired by a true story.

Calendar Girls: Nikki-Lyn Hunter, Naoné Carrel, Anne Yuille, Elaine Noon, Judi Crane, Liz de Totth and Megan Skillocorn.
Calendar Girls: Nikki-Lyn Hunter, Naoné Carrel, Anne Yuille, Elaine Noon, Judi Crane, Liz de Totth and Megan Skillocorn. Photo: Petra Weisner

The main characters in Calendar Girls are the "women of a certain age" in a chapter of the Women's Institute in Yorkshire. John (played by Jon Garland), the beloved husband of Annie (played by Elaine Noon), has cancer. When he dies, the women want to do something in his memory and decide to raise funds to buy a comfortable lounge for the visitors' room in the hospital. One idea is to make a calendar but they need one that will be enticing enough to stand out. After a bit of research reveals that sex sells, Annie's best friend Chris (Naone Carrel) proposes that they do a nude calendar – with themselves as the models. It's all to be done in the best possible taste, with the women doing activities such as cooking and strategically placing props to hide any naughty bits.

In real life, the calendar sold more then 200,000 copies and was followed by others, raising more than £1.5 million for leukaemia research.

Director Catherine Hill says one of the themes of Calendar Girls is "about how a small event went on to change the lives of the women" and how they reacted to the onset of fame.

But in the play, at least, the very idea caused a stir and it was not accomplished without a struggle. As often happens, the film and play used composite characters and dramatic licence although the basic story is true.

Hill says the script explores the characters of each of the women. Among them are Cora (Liz de Totth), a musician and single mother (after a relationship with an African-American) and the outspoken and lively Celia (Nikki-Lyn Hunter) who likes to dress provocatively. Hill says: "Her mum died of breast cancer: she thinks you shouldn't be afraid of breasts."

Then there's the more conservative Beth (Megan Skillicorn), who is concerned about what her husband might think if she posed nude.

Judi Crane plays Marie, the chairwoman, who is respected but not liked by the other women.

Hill says: "She grew up in Yorkshire and moved to Cheshire to try to better herself . . . but she came back to Yorkshire."

Jessie (Anne Yule) is a retired school teacher who "breaks every stereotype you can possibly imagine", Hill says.

This is Hill's third time directing for Rep. She did Alan Ayckbourn's Things We Do For Love in 2002 and Elizabeth Coleman's It's My Party (And I'll Die If I Want To) in 2009.

Carrel says the real-life women have described Calendar Girls as being "about 75 per cent real" and the play omits some events, such as a trip to the US that was included in the film.

This won't be Carrel's first time going unclothed on stage.

"I did Steaming back in 2001 so I suppose I've got form, one way or another," she says.

The earlier play required more skin to be bared but, she says: "I only did it in about the last two seconds of the show."

And, she says, there's a difference between nakedness and nudity: "Naked involves detail; nudity involves suggestion."

And Calendar Girls is very much about the latter.

"It's not in your face."

And it's not just about taking clothes off.

"It's a really proppy and costume-intensive show. I've got something like 12 costume changes," she says, since the period encompassed by the play covers the better part of two years with their changes of season.

Carrel says many of the cast members were inspired to produce their own version of the calendar – "even the guys are in some of the photographs" – which will be on sale at the theatre for $10, to raise funds for the Monaro Committee for Cancer Research and the Leukaemia Foundation.

Carrel says: "Nudity on stage is something you're tentative about but we had a very, very good director in Catherine Hill. She's just so strong and we felt we were working in a safe environment – she was not going to do anything to make us uncomfortable. It's so well choreographed, we had to think very carefully about doing that, and we had a really, really supportive cast."

The members of the Women's Institute may have clashed in Calendar Girls but the "Rep Girls" – and "Boys" – don't seem to have had the same problem in the company's first presentation of the play.

Calendar Girls is on at Theatre 3, 3 Repertory Lane, Acton from February 15 to March 2. Tickets $40/$35. Calendars $10. Bookings: 6257 1950 or canberrarep.org.au.