AN ACTRESS from Chester had to cut short her run in the hit play Calendar Girls after being rushed to hospital in chronic pain less than two weeks ago.
And in a cruel twist of fate, Maureen Tolefree, 55, is still in hospital after being told that the blood cancer multiple myeloma she was diagnosed with five years ago has returned.
Ironically, Calendar Girls was written by Alvanley-based playwright Tim Firth after members of the Rylstone and District WI in Yorkshire posed nude for a calendar in 1999 to raise funds to support leukaemia research, following the death of John Baker, the husband of WI member Angela, from the blood cancer non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Maureen, mum of two daughters and grandmother to George, had played the posh, golf-playing Celia, a role played by Celia Imrie in Firth’s 2003 hit film, for four nights of the 13-night Tip Top Productions run at The Forum Studio Theatre, when she started to suffer pain in her back.
Lower back pain was the first symptom Maureen had suffered in 2007, six months before she was eventually diagnosed with the cancer in 2008.
“I was all for going for the fifth performance but I was in agony and could hardly move,” she said.
It was husband Rob, starring alongside Maureen as the ill-fated John Baker, who eventually called the ambulance on Saturday morning.
“I had a funny feeling what it might be,” said Maureen. “I just knew. But I think I was more upset about missing the show. You let people down, don’t you.”
Doctors spent the weekend trying to control Maureen’s pain before carrying out tests to determine what was causing it. Just days before the run ended, they confirmed that the cancer had returned and Maureen is now undergoing treatment at Clatterbridge Hospital.
The former headteacher of St Clare’s Catholic Primary School in Lache has been overwhelmed with the good wishes, cards and support she has received from fellow cast members, crew and friends.
“I kept getting messages from the girls to say they were looking after Rob,” she laughed.
When news of Maureen’s illness reached director Simon Phillips, he called upon Tip Top stalwart Ruth Evans to stand in and perform ‘script in hand’ on the Friday night.
The fickle finger of fortune, however, was pointing to a member of the audience – one Sheryl Dean from Ellesmere Port.
The 25-year-old administrator was watching the show with members of the Ellesmere Port Musical Theatre Company, which had put on Calendar Girls at the Floral Pavilion in New Brighton at the beginning of September.
When Simon realised the extent of Maureen’s illness he approached Sheryl, who had played Celia in that production, and asked if she would take over the role.
She said: “I went to watch another matinee and then had a rehearsal with the girls on the Sunday. It was quite a challenge.
“The Tip Top cast were lovely to me though. It was awful that I had to take the role in such circumstances and I wish Maureen all the best.”
Thankfully for Maureen, her mum Margaret and sister Frances managed to watch her in action on the opening night, but sadly daughters Hannah and Beth had tickets for the Saturday night, the first night that their mum spent in hospital.
Maureen, of Newton, was one of the first amateur actresses in the country to play Celia in Tim Firth’s play, after the rights were released on September 1, allowing amateur companies to put on the successful comedy for the next 18 months.
Mr Firth visited the cast and crew of Tip Top Productions at the Forum, based at the former Gateway Theatre, earlier this month, to help them through the rehearsal process.
On hearing the news of Maureen’s situation, Mr Firth said: “My best wishes and congratulations go hand in hand.
“The spirit of the calendar was all about fighting back at illness with bravery and wit. The positive irony is that every performance Maureen gave not only demonstrated that spirit, but also raised money that will aid her eventual recovery.”
Visit www.chesterchronicle.co.uk/entertainment for a review of Calendar Girls at the Forum Studio Theatre.