by Hugh Hunter

It is common for playwrights to turn their dramas into movies, but it’s more dicey to redraft a movie script into a play. Tim Firth’s plodding “Calendar Girls” (2009), now running at Old Academy Players in East Falls, is a case in point.

The hit movie “Calendar Girls” (2003), starring Hellen Mirren and Julie Walters, is the true story of middle-aged women in the English village of Knapely. To honor the tragic death of Annie’s husband, the women raise funds for their cancer hospital by marketing a calendar with nude photos of themselves. With the help of a shared liquor bottle, the girls handle the clothing toss off, but their troubles are just beginning.

The movie is appealing. (You can watch it in its entirety on YouTube.) It captures the Englishness of the Women’s Institutes, a quaint system of rural community-based organizations in England that specializes in fundraising and competitions using traditional arts and crafts. And you see the scenic beauty of the Yorkshire Dales in contrast to Hollywood glitz, as the girls are invited onto the Jay Leno Tonight Show show when their fame mushrooms.

None of this comes out in the play. There is one highlight: the long photo shoot sequence for the calendar is funnier on stage. Photographer Lawrence (Christopher Wunder) uses pastries, potted plants, flowers, teapots and marmalade fruit cakes to obscure vital body parts and create playful, naughty photos.

Director Loretta Lucy Miller assembles a fine cast of Old Academy veterans for the climactic moment. Cora (Susan Triggiani), Chris (Susan Blair), Annie (Bonnie Grant), Jessie (Susan Lonker), Celia (Terri Fries Bateman) and Ruth (Bonnie Kapenstein) all make the most of their 15 minutes of fame.

But it is all downhill after that. Tim Firth collaborated with Juliette Towhidi to write the movie script. But despite being a full hour longer, Firth’s play spin-off does not have any of the engaging charm of the 90-minute movie original; it eviscerates most of the complications with family and friends that the calendar project created.

We do see Annie and Chris clash with the staid officialdom of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes. But we do not see how Chris’s florist husband is duped by a yellow journalist, or how her teenage son becomes troubled and embarrassed with all the publicity. Nor do we see how Ruth’s already shaky marriage fully unravels. And we only glimpse the fraying of relationships between best friends.

The real-life event is heartwarming, and successive calendars have now earned over five million pounds for the cancer hospital. But any drama needs sustained conflict. The play version of “Calendar Girls” is more like a celebratory documentary; apart from the photoshoot sequence in the middle, there is little to command your attention.

Old Academy Players is located at 3544 Indian Queen Lane. “Calendar Girls” will run through Jan 27. Tickets available at 215-8430911.

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