Shirley Valentine – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Writer: Willy Russell

Director: Glen Walford

Reviewer: Daljinder Johal

How many of us are truly living? This is the principal question of Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine. The play opens in a warm and bright kitchen with Shirley, a middle-aged Liverpool housewife whose stagnant life in a loveless marriage is disrupted by her best friend’s offer of a trip-for-two to Greece.

While Shirley builds up the confidence to plan her escape to sun, sea and sand, Prenger shines with warmth and likeability to immediately draw the audience in and keeps Russell’s classic fresh for younger audience members or those who haven’t seen the original play’s run or the 1989 film. In fact, we are only reminded of the play’s setting in the 1980s working-class household with some small details. References to the close proximity of women’s sexual revolution in the 1960s/70s or Shirley’s more formal attire for the airport can feel far removed from the 21st century sweatpants and increased openness on sex and relationships. However, the play shows how its themes of loneliness, societal pressures and gender roles are still incredibly relevant to today.

Russell’s evocative descriptions and Prenger’s powerful delivery of Shirley’s monologue in this one character play ensure that the audience hangs on to Prenger’s every word. We regularly burst into hysterical laughter at her well-pitched jokes and impressions of other characters and Prenger’s talent for mimicry can remind us of certain familiar stereotypes in our own lives.

While some of her accents are a touch imperfect at times – understandable considering the difficulty of capturing the richness of the Liverpudlian accent – Prenger skilfully glides between Shirley’s bubbly personality and the sadness it hides. Indeed, small details such as Shirley’s constant folding or holding of tablecloths or towels highlights the multifaceted nature of her character. She is indeed a mother, but she is also a human. Both her love for her children and her longing to rediscover the vitality of her long-lost youth are equally valid parts of our complicated female heroine. Interestingly, it is not those closest to her, like her family and best friend, who recognise this, but other female characters of a similar age. Society is clearly failing to listen to these women, leading them to talk to walls as Shirley does.

The play clearly has made a successful return for its 30th anniversary tour by choosing Prenger in the lead role. However, the set does not shine as brilliantly as its lead actress. The designer, Amy Yardley and her fellow creative and production team craft a functional, but effectively claustrophobic kitchen, allowing Prenger to make full use of the space and props when telling her stories of other characters, like her husband Joe. Indeed, small details such as the housewife’s omnipresent wine glass and the set kitchen’s ability to cook Joe’s dinner of egg and chips immerse the audience with senses and our own memories. Yet, the second act’s set fails to capture what Russell’s original words evoke in a few lines. The beautiful Greek shoreline is not conveyed by the towering imitation rocks and the artificiality of the vista also fails to show what inspires Shirley’s new-found zest for life. Elsewhere, Ed Clarke could increase the soft, soothing sounds of the sea beyond some unfortunately barely-audible whispers. Instead, it is the lighting of James Whiteside that serves to bathe Shirley the brave, Shirley the magnificent in the light that she truly deserves.

Runs until 10 June 2017 | Image: Manuel Harlan

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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