Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Glen Walford
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
By 1986, when he wrote Shirley Valentine, Willy Russell had already established himself as one of the country’s most acclaimed comic playwrights. Educating Rita had already, and fairly swiftly, made its way from the stage to the screen and Russell had proven that eighties man could speak with a powerful feminist voice. Shirley Valentine was a hit in his native Liverpool, in London and on Broadway, speaking to all the forty-something women who flocked into the theatres to see what he’d done with this latest heroine.
Thirty years on there’s a packed house for this one-woman show, performed in The Lowry’s main space by Jodie Prenger, the winner of the 2008 BBC show I’d Do Anything, the talent show that landed her the role of Nancy in Cameron Mackintosh’s West End revival of Oliver! Whether it’s Prenger or the play that has sold such a lot of seats on a Monday night is hard to tell, but the crowd is certainly old enough to have seen the play – or at least the film – in its early days – and there aren’t many men to be seen.
Prenger clearly delights in this errant character. She inhabits Shirley, if not the Liverpudlian accent, from the moment she appears in the brightly lit kitchen, recounting the start of her adventure. She’s the archetypal bored housewife, going through the motions of her dull marriage, putting up with a man who’s just as unhappy and trapped as she is. When a friend suggests the idea of a girls’ fortnight on a Greek island, Shirley allows herself to dream that it might just be possible, and one altercation with husband Joe over serving the wrong thing for tea makes her realise that it is.
Women who feel like Shirley were probably still fairly prevalent in the eighties, and although we know we’ve moved on over the past thirty years there’s still much that feels pertinent here. Prenger successfully brings out Shirley’s sharp intelligence and generosity of spirit, the lack of animosity and blame that Shirley has against Joe explains why she’s put up with her situation for so long. She is bright and cheerful, hoping to the end that Joe will not only understand but find a new lease of life similar to her own.
The play is packed with great one-liners, at times with the pace of stand-up comedy, making the sharp observations about ordinary life particularly poignant. Prenger has great comic timing and delivery, she’s a very likeable performer, something that’s fairly essential when delivering a two-hour monologue. She speaks very directly to the audience, and although this makes her habit of overcoming loneliness by talking to the kitchen wall (and a rock she befriends on the beach) seem slightly jarring at times, it makes for an absorbing performance. The early discomfort that she seems to have with the accent seems to dissipate as she eases into the performance, or maybe it just takes some tuning into. She uses a variety of accents throughout when Shirley brings other people into her stories – from the Irish headmaster at her son’s school, to her old classmate turned middle-aged hooker – and works hard at them but scouse is really not her natural territory.
There’s little to be said about the design. Amy Yardley’s set looks rather thrown together. The highly detailed (and fully working) kitchen from the first half, in which Shirley cooks up ‘chips and egg’ (always an anomaly for this reviewer, don’t people say ‘egg and chips’?), makes way for an amateurish beach set with ugly fibreglass rocks and draped fabric unconvincingly representing the sea. Costumes look like they’ve been pulled out of a dressing up box and are rather overstated. Less would definitely have been more. But all of this can be ignored, with the enjoyment of the production coming from Russell’s rich script and Prenger’s compelling performance. Shirley Valentine is right at the start of a long summer and early Autumn tour. It’s a good, solid night of entertainment. Get the girls together!
Runs until 24 June 2017 | Image: Contributed