Although she plays the ‘elder lemon’ in Calendar Girls, actress, Gerry McLoughlin, says her character, Jessie, a retired school teacher, is the first to agree to strip off for a good cause. The play, which runs at the Everyman theatre in Cork from October 3-13, is based on the film starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters. That was in turn inspired by the true story of a group of English women from the Women’s Institute, who agreed to be photographed nude for a calendar to raise money for a comfortable sofa for the waiting room in their local hospital.
In the play, their decision is sparked by the main character’s husband’s death from leukaemia at a young age. Annie (played by Paula McGlinchey) wants her husband to be remembered, while also doing something practical for visitors to the hospital.
“The women aim to make £600 but end up making half a million pounds,” says McLoughlin. “While it’s a true story, it has been embellished a bit. But there’s nothing licentious in the play. It’s not about women flaunting their bodies. We’re not page three models. I have got over the embarrassment of it. I’ve come to accept that my body is Rubenesque – in other words, I’m big and pendulous. “Our director, Mary Curtin, knows it’s sensitive and has assured us from the beginning that the show is in the best possible taste,” says McLoughlin.
The nine actresses will be naked on stage but they will be acting behind props. Director Mary Curtin originally wanted the play to be transposed to a Cork setting but she couldn’t get permission. McLoughlin says the play works best spoken in a Yorkshire dialect, in keeping with the writing.
Killian Collins plays a hospital porter and amateur photographer who takes the shots for the calendar, inspired by the style of Pirelli. Another male character in the play is Conor Tallon, who plays John, the man who dies.
“He’s there at the beginning of the play. Conor proves that there’s no such thing as a small part,” says McLoughlin. “He’s very intuitive. When he gets up from his wheelchair and leaves, it indicates that he has died.”
Chris, played by Valerie O’Leary, is the driving force behind the idea of stripping off. “As the women become more and more well- known, Chris starts to really enjoy the stardom and does all the interviews for television. She and Annie fall out,” McLoughlin points out. But everything is resolved eventually with the publicity dying down and everyday life taking over.
Lorraine Manley plays Cora, a vicar’s daughter. “She’s a rebellious single mum. I think she is taking part in the calendar shoot to challenge herself. Her daughter holds a grudge against her mother for not sticking with her father. This is all part of Cora’s back story. Her daughter is initially embarrassed by the calendar.”
Manley was last seen on stage singing in the The Cha and Miah Farewell Laughter Show at the Everyman theatre. “I get more work singing than acting but I actually prefer acting.” Manley attended the CIT Cork School of Music. “But I didn’t go the whole way there because they were trying to mould me into a having an operatic sound. That isn’t really me. I’m more into a jazz sound.”
McLoughlin considers herself to be in semi-retirement but says she’s open to offers. Her most recent roles were in one-women plays, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and Sisters by Declan Hassett. “I’m now in my third play in two years. You couldn’t make a living out of theatre in Cork. But I’m determined to do more. It’s great to be with other actors on stage.
“When you’re doing one-woman shows such as the ones I did, you don’t know if people are enjoying them. There’s no laughs and you can’t bounce off others. In this play, the women are great company.”
In 2008, McLoughlin was diagnosed with bowel cancer. “When you’re faced with a life-threatening illness and you overcome it, it makes you determined to make the most of things. I never thought I was going to die. Thank God, I’m now fine.”
Calendar Girls fits into the genre of ‘girls night out’ theatre. “It’s an ideal women’s night out. But we’re hoping to see men at the theatre as well – without the raincoats!”