Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Glen Walford
Reviewer: Janet Jepson
It is a tribute to the writer Willy Russell that the phrase “doing a Shirley Valentine” has captivated the imagination of almost every middle-aged woman on the planet. Who doesn’t dream of escaping the drudgery of everyday life with a long-term husband who barely notices you’re there, and grown-up kids who have flown the nest? Shirley has sunk to the level of talking to the wall in her tidy fitted kitchen as she slaves over her man’s dinner – to be placed on the table at the exact moment he walks through the door (hubby Joe talks to the fridge, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem). ‘Ar Millandra’, who even shuns shopping trips, is living with a friend in a flat out of mum’s way, and ‘Ar Brian’ has moved into a squat (he always was a rebel, right back to the time he changed the classic story of the nativity back in school…).
Shirley had been the naughty girl in school too, but her spirit has been squashed over the years. Or has it? When her adventurous friend Jane, of husband/milkman fame, presents her with tickets for a two-week beach holiday in Greece, Shirley laughs. But accidental encouragement from ‘the popular girl’ at school turned snooty neighbour, makes her change her mind.
Greece lives up to all expectations. When Shirley has escaped the English tourists who feel sorry for her solitary state (Jane has taken off with a toy boy she met on the plane) she indulges to the full in the sun, sea, sand, sky and everything else on offer – including the irresistible Costas. The boat trip with Costas moves the earth for her, he’s a real Christopher Columbus (but you have to see the play to understand that one). This is what life should be like, and Shirley never boards the plane back home. We leave her on a break from her job in Costas’ bar (that suave young man is still continuing his quest to seduce every female crossing his path, but he’s not what Shirley is there for), and she’s sitting at a table bearing a bottle of wine and two glasses. Guess who’s due to arrive? Yes, it’s hubby Joe. But will he recognise Shirley Bradshaw, née Valentine?
This production at Sheffield Lyceum with Jodie Prenger in the role of Shirley is excellent. She effortlessly holds the show single-handedly, moving from actually cooking eggs and chips in her kitchen on stage, to sunbathing by a rock on what could easily be a Greek island. She’s perfectly cast; not svelte, but who wears beautiful, bright clothing and has a lovely smile. And of course, mention has to be made of her brilliant Scouse accent; she does the Liverpool writer proud. The scenery is totally predictable, with a fully-fitted kitchen gracing the first act, and a beach and azure sky representing Greece in the second. The scenery is superfluous really, all that’s needed is the character. It is impossible to resist comparing any performance of Shirley Valentine with the film version starring the unforgettable Pauline Collins in the role. Collins was Shirley Valentine, but it has to be said that Prenger is pretty close.
This is a one-woman show, virtually a monologue demonstrating the writer’s amazing ability to get right into the minds of his strong female characters, and it is incredible that Willy Russell can write so accurately and in such depth about female feelings. Probably the best demonstration of this was in a Liverpool theatre in 1986, when he was forced to read the role himself after the star fell ill. A review of his performance declared that “the work is so sensitive that it is possible to entirely forget a man is speaking the words.” The ultimate accolade surely.
All this aside though, woman or man, go see the current production, laugh along with Shirley, sympathise with her, and dream that maybe you could escape from it all at some point. There’s sun, sea and Costas out there aplenty if you can only get out of the kitchen and seek them out.
Touring Nationwide | Image: Manuel Harlan