Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Glen Walford
Reviewer: John Kennedy
Beginning a week’s residency, tonight’s opening show is part of a six-leg UK 30th anniversary revival tour, first premiered in 1986. Russell’s bitter/sweet comedy of self-discovery by the put upon wallflower, Shirley Valentine, later became an Oscar nomination hit in 1989 with the screenplay adaptation also by Russell. Inevitably it is against the film’s defining benchmark that tonight’s performance resonates in the audience’s memory. Albeit stretching back some twenty-six years ago, it’s still a tough act to follow.
Much is about to change for Shirley but for now, with the kids having flown the coop, the only reminder of that once cozy nest is the double egg and chips she serves up for husband Joe’s inevitable Thursday tea. His expected steak is already in next-door’s dog. The egg and chips soon to be thrown back into her lap. Time to talk to the wall again Shirley because your husband sure ain’t listening. And then there is the matter of those fortnight holiday tickets in Greece courtesy of mate Linda. They’re burning a hole both in her handbag and Catholic conscience with equal intensity. The ennui is stifling but beware, Shirley – of Greeks bearing gifts. She’s beginning to discover that the old Shirley Valentine has ‘…got lost in all that unused life.’
That this Mediterranean sun-kissed national treasure needs to be handled with care is evidently foremost in director Glen Walford’s cunning plan. It succeeds in buckets and spades and wind-kissed beach parasols. There’s the crisp bouquet of retsina after-sun pathos served up as a double-dip of deliciously delivered Greco/Scouse wit. It is hardly a plot spoiler to say that Walford returns to Russell’s original stage production and that it’s all Shirley’s one-woman show. That Jodie Prenger has hit the big time with lime-lit confidence and natural sincerity is beyond dispute. She is a glittering gallery of disarming wry innocence and caustic realism. Her inexhaustible parade of nuanced, body gestures and facial asides engage the audience with her girlish kiss ‘n’ tell bashful candour but ever maintaining that essential critical separation from familiarity. Russell’s script crackles with charged energy on a pace with Prenger’s innate gift for timing a twist or delivering a killer bathos shocker where the laughter shakes the rafters. Her recollection of her tiny son’s not quite redemptive role as Joseph in the school nativity play is worth the ticket alone.
Come Act 2, with Shirley now in Hellenic holiday heaven, the mood becomes more philosophical – her sense of location as apt as her comic timing. Designer Amy Yardley gives us a sand and basalt black and golden rock beach setting. Its pastel-paint innocence paying homage to the Great Western Railway, Art Deco, Cornish Riviera posters. Shirley beams with happiness and grabs catharsis by the scruff of the neck. Equally, Prenger makes pathos hang in the air with pin-drop silence. A highly engaging and rewarding evening and very much recommended. Wake up and smell the chips – like our Shirley, they’re for real and very appetising indeed. Perhaps, in this week of International Women’s Awareness, Shirley would be marching in celebration. She’d certainly still find much to be marching in protest about.
Runs until 11 March 2017 | Image: Manuel Harlan