Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Mark Stratton
Of all the welcome returns to action in the field of theatre and concerts, few will be greeted more happily than Esk Valley Theatre’s first season since 2018. It’s a concept that shouldn’t really work anyway, but it’s been a consistent success and a much loved part of the theatre landscape since 2005. Director Mark Stratton and producer Sheila Carter, with a tiny team of professionals and many devoted volunteers, take over the Robinson Institute in non-too-accessible Glaisdale for the month of August, stage one accomplished and entertaining production and boost North York Moors tourism no end!
Understandably Esk Valley Theatre tends to favour small-cast plays anyway and this year’s choice, Shirley Valentine, could be made for socially distanced rehearsing. Interestingly this one-person play, like the two-hander from the same stable, Educating Rita (staged by EVT in 2016), was made into a smash-hit film with lots of good parts for some very well-known actors indeed! The great strength of Ashley Hope Allan’s performance as Shirley is the vividness with which she brings these characters to life in her monologue, not only in the range of beautifully judged and often amusing accents (oddly, Allan’s Scouse accent as Shirley slips occasionally), but in their stance and mannerisms.
Shirley’s monologue falls into three sections, two of them in Liverpool and one, after the interval, on a Greek island. The first establishes that the 42-year-old Shirley Bradshaw has lost all the spark and individuality that characterised the often wayward young Shirley Valentine. Now, surrounded by people more selfish or more eccentric (or both) than herself, she is a slave to domestic routine and her feminist friend Jane’s offer of a fortnight on a Greek island seems a mere pipe-dream. The second and third monologues find her on the brink of departing and then sitting on her favourite Greek beach.
Now that we are accustomed to Willy Russell’s originality, the sentimentality of miraculously “finding herself” does jar occasionally, but the Press Night audience found it no drawback and the canny playwright knows when to relieve it with a vivid re-creation of a silly scene (Shirley with the British hotel guests – a gem!) or a flash of Scouse wit.
The same ability to relieve sentimentality with humour is there in Ashley Hope Allan’s performance. Under Mark Stratton’s shrewd direction, she underplays the agony, nails the humour and knows the value of audience rapport.
Willy Russell, says the programme, “puts forward the philosophy that anyone is capable of change” and this production is clear on pushing this philosophy while remaining an amiable entertainment. We always know what the message is, Christine Wall’s costumes and Graham Kirk’s sets (a mirror image of each other, with over-sized postcards spelling it out) expository as well as attractive.
Runs until August 28th 2021