Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Glen Walford
Reviewer: Dominic Corr
The mark of a truly unique performance of a Willy Russell classic is offering up freshness. In some cases, watching one performance of Shirley Valentine will be similar, if not identical to the next. Jodie Prenger, however, offers up her original interpretation of Shirley. This is the key to this revival’s success. This isn’t the original 1986 Shirley, nor is it Pauline Collins. Instead, it is a revived show which delivers the heart of the original, with a new face.
Routine is easy to become stuck in, and for Shirley Bradshaw (née Valentine) this is precisely what has happened to her life. Her closest companion is the supporting wall of her kitchen, once decorated with fevered passion by her and her husband. Now, it’s the backdrop for evening meals and the daily grind of life. This one-woman performance, looking at life, ageing and loneliness, is delivered with a healthy dose of grim wit.
Prenger is the hard Scouser. Lively, powerful, but still with her own unique take on the text. You can feel her roots in musical theatre edge through, evident in the bursts of energy and dramatic pathos needed to survive an evening cooking chips and conversing with a wall. Prenger is a standalone Valentine, at the heart of her performance is the exaggerated northern humour, mixing sarcasm and brutal self-deprecation. There isn’t as much vulnerability as Collins 1989 performance, but it’s still present hidden behind the laughs.
The writing of Russell has a deep resonance with the audience. Everyone regardless of age and gender finds something to identify with Shirley – her loneliness, defiance against mundane life, and for many of us, the reliance on vino after work. While unable to speak for everyone, there’s a strong sense that the audience affixes an aspect of the writing to themselves. It feels as though this one moment was written about them, for them, someone understands them.
Designer Amy Yardley captures the claustrophobic confines of a Liverpool kitchen, contrasting it with the freedom of the Grecian skyline. A simple swirling of the backdrop and rocks on the beach truly allow Shirley to live her dream. As this beach becomes an Impressionists’ idea of an escaped reality, deep purples and blues mingle, taking the audience to the stage breathing, feeling their world change along with Shirley.
There is, however, a gripe to be made with the first scene change, that those unfamiliar with the story mistook for the interval as stage hands recover props. Odd lighting and a peculiar setup, cause the audience to erupt into chatter, several getting out of their seats heading to the bar.
Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine is a text open to all. While its Liverpudlian roots are clear, between Russell, Prenger and Glen Walford’s directing, this is a fresh Shirley, your Shirley. At its heart, anyone can be a Shirley Valentine; woman, man, teen or retired. Wouldn’t you agree, wall?
Runs until 3 June 2017 | Image: Manuel Harlan