Shirley Valentine – The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Glen Walford
Reviewer: Victoria Bawtree
Willy Russell’s one-woman play, Shirley Valentine, is enjoying a revival tour, 30 years after its first performance.  Despite being written and set in the 1980s, however, Russell’s monologue is still relevant today.

Jodie Prenger plays the 42-year-old housewife from Liverpool who is trapped in a monotonous marriage with only “wall” to keep her company. Shirley is warm and funny, liberated in speech, but she has lost bravura of her youth and her family take her for granted. When a friend invites her on a two-week holiday to a Greek island, her initial reaction of ‘I couldn’t’ gradually turns into ‘I have to’, but all the time she can’t let go of the fact that she is scared of taking risks and of facing life beyond her wall.

Amy Yardley’s design of a drab 1980s yellow-walled kitchen – complete with its own period and fully-functioning deep fat fryer – is the backdrop for Shirley’s life in Act I. After the interval, the transformation to a Greek island is immediate, and James Whiteside’s lighting design of vivid blues and bright sunshine brings Shirley’s secluded beach to a reality.

The monologue flows at a swift pace from the outset and Prenger is soon at ease with her role, particularly when the story-telling begins in earnest. She introduces the audience to a stream of different characters, all with their own clear personalities and quirks: from her husband, nosey neighbour, headmistress and the girl she wanted to be at school in the first half, to a raft of Brits abroad and Costas, the Greek taverna owner, who teaches Shirley to feel alive again in the second.

Russell’s script allows dark moments to be faced not only with humour, but with humility: Shirley Valentine is no soft touch, but she is still vulnerable. Prenger is totally at home with the comedy, but she also carries this unassuming and sensitive nature completely on her sleeve and the audience is totally with her as she opts to ‘live a little life’ and not to join those who ‘die before they’re dead’.

Times have, of course, changed in 30 years: there can’t be many women today who, at 42, will have children old enough to have left home; nor indeed would many male breadwinners from the 1980s enjoy the concept of a stay-at-home dad. Whatever our gender, however, there are always challenges and Shirley Valentine is everyone’s lesson in having the confidence to make a change, and to keep talking.

Runs until 20 May 2017 and continues to tour |Image: Manuel Harlan


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