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Calendar girls laid bare

Nudity is back on the West End stage, but this time there's less to it than meets the eye

Naughty but nice is probably the best way of describing the nudity in Calendar Girls, Tim Firth's stage adaptation of his own film script that has arrived in the West End after a long tour. The girls manage to be cautious but coy while claiming to be outrageous; and it certainly is a West End first to have "older" but still fairly gorgeous ladies like Sian Phillips, Patricia Hodge and Lynda Bellingham flaunting their flesh among the iced buns and teapots in the village hall for the photographer making a calendar to raise money for leukaemia research.

It's a far cry – or is it, really? – from the induction of a young girl in the ways of pornographic film making that was at the nub of XXX on the London fringe five years ago. That show, from the Catalan barnstormers La Fura dels Baus, was an outrageous new take on the Marquis de Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom that challenged and toyed with our attitudes towards sexual expression in the theatre.

Funnily enough, the sexiest sequence in XXX was a reverse striptease in which the four (hard)core cast members donned their togs to music, thereby proving that covering up is the best route to provocative allure; newspaper ads in which calendar girl Patricia Hodge declares the show is "revealing all" fool nobody. The announcement in XXX that the audience had been sprayed with pheromones and that we should therefore feel free to make free with our neighbours fell on stony ground and deaf ears.

Had we all joined in, of course, we would have been going backwards in time anyway to the days of the Living Theatre in the mid to late 1960s, when punters could – and did – participate in onstage orgies with the hippie actors. The idea that nudity on stage is a trigger to instant debauchery is fairly discredited now. Calendar Girls is harmless suburban fun with a heart, though the sight of Julia Hills lying like an odalisque among a tub of oranges does not fail to arouse some vestige at least of erotic feeling.

There, I've said it. Kenneth Tynan always claimed that his nude revue Oh! Calcutta! (a true bottom man's exclamation, "Oh, quel cul t'as!") in London in 1970 failed to glean good reviews because he realised he was asking a group of fairly respectable middle-aged men to confess in print to an erection in the theatre. The sole artistic purpose of the show was sexual arousal. But the only sexually seductive scene was in fact the least insistently filthy, a naked pas de deux, two beautiful bodies (one of them Arlene Phillips's, originally) entwined in a good piece of modern dance.

Nudity had arrived on the London stage two years earlier with the rock musical Hair, the minute the Lord Chamberlain was abolished. But even then there was Calendar Girls-type decorum about it, with boobs and genitals visible only to the very keenest eye through the artistic subtlety of the lighting. Sleight of hand, as in the burlesque art of striptease, celebrated in the 1959 musical Gypsy, is the dominant modus operandi.

Actors rarely let it all hang out on the West End stage. The line-up of male bits and pieces in the stripping finale of the musical The Full Monty was bleached out in a burst of white light (though the Queen, reportedly, got an eyeful at the Royal Variety performance as she was sitting above the dazzle line), and whereas the Broadway lead in Stephen Sondheim's Passion opened the show by crossing the stage in full and naked glory, Michael Ball in the London version kept his cool and his clothes on.

We're less inhibited on the fringe, or in the subsidised venues. XXX was presented at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, where Greg Day's Stripped 10 years ago used full frontal male nudity in a witty analysis of one man's sexual confusion when others see him, even when fully exposed, as a woman. And most notoriously, perhaps, Howard Brenton's Romans in Britain presented naked and assaulted male druids as victims of colonial invasion in a powerful metaphorical play about Ireland back in 1980.

There was no sense in the Brenton play of nudity being a soft-porn option. But there is a real carnal purpose to some stage nudity when it challenges our sense of shame. George Bernard Shaw said that we are ashamed of everything that's real about ourselves – our accents, our opinions, our relatives – just as we are ashamed of our naked skins. Nudity in the theatre can help to strip away those misgivings, and it's often the politicised gay theatre on the fringe that leads the way.

There's a big revival at the moment of cabaret and burlesque around town, and one of the most striking acts in La Clique at the London Hippodrome is that of Ursula Martinez, an out gay stripper with a fine body who peels off like one of Gypsy's ecdysiasts ("Let me entertain you, let me make you smile") and produces a red handkerchief from the most intimate recesses of her anatomy. It's funny and sexy but it's mostly shocking and defiant.

And it's a trick most certainly not in the repertoire of the calendar girls. Their nearest "fringe" equivalents are surely Miss Polly Rae and her Hurly Burly Girlies who are playing 10 o'clock spots at the Leicester Square venue in a programme of bump and grind items with topless climaxes, or perhaps Joe DiPietro's Fucking Men at the King's Head in Islington, an all-male version of La Ronde with plenty of towels and sauna scenes but nothing more full-frontal than the title.

Even on the fringe it's rare for a play to combine complete sexual frankness with outstanding dramatic quality, but Matthew Todd's Blowing Whistles managed this at the Leicester Square venue last year, when a gay relationship was placed under strain by the incursion of a beautiful naked Adonis of a rent boy hired as a birthday treat. The boy's assets were a huge selling point for a gay audience, but the play itself was shot through with a melancholy and poignancy that elevated it from skin show to proper drama.

Similarly, plays by Terry Johnson and David Hare – Rosamund Pike in Hitchcock's Blonde and Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room – have justified the titillating nudity of the actress in a theatrical context that eclipsed the initial sensationalism. The plays were also seen in the "safe havens" of the Royal Court and the Donmar Warehouse, where all artistic intentions are impeccably honourable.

It's more interesting, perhaps, when those intentions are blurred, as they were last year in Leo Butler's Faces in the Crowd in the Court's upstairs studio. The audience was forced into the role of voyeurs, perched high above the action, looking down into a living area where the actors Con O'Neill and Amanda Drew not only stripped naked, made violent love, and went to the toilet – all in full view – but also masturbated and blamed the hopelessness of their lives on the policies of Mrs Thatcher.

As an audience, we were caught between the devil of voyeurism and the deep blue sea of powerfully felt theatrical protest. It was a difficult place to be. The great solace of Calendar Girls is that it allows you to have your cream cake and eat it without getting hot or bothered on the pudenda agenda, with restricted access to all that genitalia paraphernalia.

'Calendar Girls' is at the Noël Coward Theatre, London WC2 (0844 482 5140)