Writer: Willy Russell
Producer: Adam Spiegel
Director: Glen Walford
Reviewer: Rob Atkinson
There can be few theatrical challenges more daunting than a one-person show, the spectacle of a lone actor taking on the responsibility for the entertainment of a whole audience over the span of a couple of hours. When that show consists of what is essentially an extended monologue, unrelieved by the traditional extra ingredients of song and dance, then that challenge becomes stiffer still. And yet, in this triumphant revival of Willy Russell’s Liverpudlian portrait of a jaded housewife, Jodie Prenger as Shirley Valentine makes the task look easy and fun.
It is Shirley Bradshaw née Valentine we meet as the show opens, bustling around her kitchen as she mixes canteen cuisine with her own wry take on reality’s humdrum nature and the various dilemmas and escapades of her life so far. She’s a woman contemplating journeys both actual and metaphorical – she has the opportunity of a two week break in Greece with her friend Jane, and she’s wondering aloud how she could possibly dare take such a chance, with its potential for renewed self-discovery, given her mundane responsibilities and the certain disapproval of husband and daughter. As she ponders and then finally settles this question during the first act of domestic conformity mixed with wistful longing for something more, she regales the audience with trademark Liverpool humour, interspersed with spells where she unburdens herself of this or that insecurity. So, there’s a mixture of belly-laughs here and the kind of silences where a pin could be heard to drop there, as Prenger dispenses comedy and poignancy to equally sublime effect.
If the first act represents stark reality, with its prosaic and authentic kitchen set, and the actual aroma of chips and egg cooking away, then the second is on a different plane altogether. Gone are the intensely practical stove, cooker and washer, with deep fat fryer pressed into service and the familiar rattle of plates and cutlery, to be replaced by a rocky beach and the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, all rendered as per a travel poster and making a telling and effective contrast with the workaday pre-interval homeliness. Now we have moved from Liverpool to Greece, from daily drudgery to escapist fantasy. Shirley Bradshaw has shed her domestic manacles and is reacquainting herself with Shirley Valentine, the free spirit who dares to have a soft little dream and set about making it come true.
Reality still impinges on Shirley’s Greek idyll; there are crass fellow tourists from back home, with their jarring demands for the things they know and trust – the things that Shirley Valentine wishes to put behind her. And there is the prospect of her husband turning up, possibly demanding explanations and a return of his own sense of security, one which requires the wife in the kitchen and a steak dinner on the table. With the competing attractions of Greek charmer Costas, who offers both employment at his bar and the prospect of new levels of romantic discovery and fulfilment, Shirley remains intent on sorting out her inner Valentine and shedding her Bradshaw persona. Back home, she would confide in her kitchen wall; now, out here in Greece, a rock on the beach provides the same sounding-board function. Both mutely help Shirley complete her real journey, the one that leads her back to the woman inside the housewife.
Prenger’s performance is energetically busy and physical; she uses the space so well in both environments that the audience has no difficulty in remaining thoroughly engaged and involved in the action and inner thoughts of a fascinating and beautifully crafted character. Prenger benefits from both Glen Walford’s subtle directorial hand and a brilliant script, replete with Willy Russell’s legendary one-liners – and this shows in her freedom of movement and expression, as well as the underlying humour that accompanies even her most poignant moments. She had the audience in the palm of her hand for the full two hours, from ebullient to wistful and back again and, judging by the faint aromas drifting forward from the stage, she cooks a mean chips and egg, even when professionally occupied. This is a master class performance, one which thoroughly merited the enthusiastic applause of an audience that plainly loved every minute. Highly recommended.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed