The tale of Calendar Girls is one of mutual support and female solidarity that brought global fame to the women who inspired the story. But now a war has broken out among amateur thespians vying to stage the hit play, says its producer.
David Pugh, who produces the professional show with Dafydd Rogers, said yesterday he was beginning to "regret greatly" the decision to release the amateur rights. "It has become a feast of backbiting, bitching and unhappiness among ladies all over the country," he said.
The amateur rights for the play, based on the true story of members of Rylstone and District Women's Institute in Yorkshire stripping off for a charity calendar, are being released for the first time for 12 months from 1 September next year. The producers hope to establish a Guinness World Record for the most productions of one play in a year, with a percentage of the royalties going to Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research.
But the limited window – combined with unprecedented demand – is frustrating drama groups. Mr Pugh has received angry telephone calls from some "very forthright" amateur dramatics societies complaining that other local groups are also planning to stage the play. In some cases, they are "fighting over" the same theatre or church hall.
"There are ladies all over the country wanting to take off their clothes," said Mr Pugh, who did not realise that the rights release would prove quite so popular.
Four Suffolk theatre companies have reportedly cancelled their productions after discovering five amateur groups wanted to perform Calendar Girls at two theatres in Ipswich and Felixstowe within two months.
Lisa Hardy, 36, production manager for Stage Door Theatre Company in Felixstowe, which cancelled its production at the 900-seat Spa Pavilion in the town, said there would be "absolute saturation" if all performances went ahead and the rights release had caused "absolute mayhem in this area".
"I just feel it hasn't been thought through at all," she added. "I understand the idea of the world record but I don't feel it's going to help the piece at all. It's a tremendously funny, tremendously moving piece that's a challenge for any group to put on but, for me, the integrity of it all now has been called into question because it's been so badly managed by [the licensing agent] Samuel French."
But Georgy Jamieson, publicity officer for the Two Rivers Theatre Company, which is staging Calendar Girls at the 70-seat Sir John Mills Theatre in Ipswich, in September next year, said there was no need for other groups to cancel. "I think there's a general feeling that we will all try and compete for the same audience but our group aren't of that feeling at all," said the 41-year-old, who is hoping to be cast in the production. "We are all very focused on the charity aspect of this."
Tony Gibbs, chief executive of the National Operatic and Dramatic Association, which represents more than 2,500 amateur societies, said most rights holders generally worked to a "three-month or 30-mile" principle, meaning a licence would not be issued to more than one society in the same vicinity less than three months and/or less than 30 miles apart. "By not applying that principle, it's going to create tension, put it that way," he said.
However, Paul Taylor, performing rights director at Samuel French, said that this principle applied only to musicals. He said demand for Calendar Girls was "quite unprecedented": Samuel French has received 302 applications from UK amateur groups, and issued 154 licences. The company now warns applicants of the show's popularity and that other groups in their area may be performing it.
Since opening at Chichester Festival Theatre in September 2008, the West End and touring production of the play has taken £26m at the box office. The 2003 film Calendar Girls, on which the stage play is based, grossed £60m worldwide.
The real-life Calendar Girls of the Rylstone and District WI posed naked for a 2000 calendar in aid of Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research following the death of John Baker, the husband of a Rylstone WI member, from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Mr Baker's widow Angela, 65, of Linton in Yorkshire, who is now married to the Rev Charles Knowles, was the original Miss February. She welcomed the release of the amateur rights and hoped groups enjoyed performing the play.
Her local theatre group, Grassington Players, of which Mr Baker was house manager, will perform the amateur premiere of Calendar Girls on 31 August next year. She admitted the production might be a "little bit harder to watch" as it would be done by people she saw every day rather than famous actresses she did not know.
"John was well known in the area," she added. "It will be difficult wondering who is going to play him, and it may be hard for the person playing him who lives locally.
"I think we will all feel it a bit strange. It's very close to home."