Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Glen Walford
Reviewer: Maggie Constable
Wow…The 30th anniversary of Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine already and how times have changed for many women. Russell is well known for his portrayal of very real, feisty female characters and our eponymous heroine is no exception. She joins us in Milton Keynes this week.
Shirley Bradshaw lives a happy if fairly humdrum life as wife and mother in 1980’s Merseyside – or does she? Her best friend appears to be ‘Wall’ to whom she chats endlessly. Luckily for Shirley, a real human friend, Jane, decides to whisk the 42-year-old housewife off to an idyllic Greek island for a fortnight’s holiday and it is then that Shirley begins to examine/question herself and her life back home. What’s more, she finds love with one Costas, a young waiter, after her pal Jane has wandered off on her own adventures. Will life ever be the same?
The play is a virtual monologue and thus the onus is all on Jodie Prenger and her ability to hold her audience. That she does – and how. It feels as if we are sitting opposite her, that she talks to each of us individually, and we are transfixed. Through her incessant chit-chat and quasi-banter with us she allows us to see her inner workings and feelings and discover much about her life in suburbia. We gain a sense of what it was truly like to be an ordinary Northern woman in that era. We learn much about her relationships with her husband and children, and more through what seem to be hilarious stories embellished by wonderfully wicked impressions of all the people. Her musings on sex and Freud are hilarious with lines along the gist of, ”Sex is like Sainsbury’s…lots of pushing and shoving and not much to show for it at the end”. Yet we sense that underneath that bubbly exterior is a person for whom so much is bubbling up and who is prepared to take risks, to take that leap of faith in her quest to recapture Shirley Valentine.
Prenger plays with her audience and cheekily involves it but she also shows us the passionate and strong woman that is Shirley Valentine. There is so much poignancy behind many of the quips. What she conveys are real and heartfelt emotions, taking us from sadness and solitude to utter joy, always with humour. She makes the character truly come alive and that is no mean feat over nigh on two hours. Her physicality and use of space add an enormous amount to her dynamic performance. Her sense of comic timing is faultless as is her delivery of Russell’s fabulous one-liners.
There are just the two settings, those being Shirley’s suburban Liverpool kitchen (80s to a tee) and the Greek beach, which is simply if not somewhat disappointingly, conveyed. Anything else is cleverly alluded to through Prenger’s actions, her facial expressions and, of course, what she tells us. Very effective use of music and lighting help to create the ambience.
Prenger has demonstrated a real range of skills since her ‘Nancy’ days and here she positively sparkles. An utterly convincing portrayal of another well-rounded Willy Russell character. We leave the theatre with a warm glow in our hearts.
Runs until 1 April 2017 | Image: Manuel Harlan