Shirley Valentine – Theatre Royal, Nottingham

Writer: Willy Russell

Director: Glen Walford

Reviewer:  Dave Smith

Willy Russell’s ever-popular Shirley Valentine, first seen at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre in 1986, has been given a long overdue and high-profile revival in the form of a major national tour. Original director Glen Walford is again in charge, with Jodie Prenger given the difficult task of carrying the whole thing on her own for the duration of the two-hour show. (Those who have only seen the 1989 film, with Pauline Collins in the title role alongside heavyweight support provided by Tom Conti, Julia McKenzie, Joanna Lumley and Alison Steadman, may not be aware that the stage play was written as a single-hander.)

Shirley Bradshaw is a forty-something, working-class housewife in 1980s Liverpool, frustrated with the current state of her life and marriage, but given the chance for a break from the routine when a friend offers to pay for a trip for two to Greece. The entire play is performed in the form of a monologue delivered by Shirley initially in her kitchen, making egg and chips for the husband with whom marriage has long since stopped delivering anything approaching romance, and later on the beach in Greece, as she reveals her gradual transformation back into the Shirley Valentine she used to be.

The big questions demanding attention are whether the problems of a Shirley Valentine are still relevant to an audience living in a very different world over thirty years down the line, and whether Jodie Prenger has the acting chops to carry it off on her own.

The answer is a qualified yes on both counts. There’s no doubting Willy Russell’s ability to deliver funny jokes that cut to the heart of a subject and his almost uncanny understanding of the woman’s side in the battle of the sexes. On the flip side, a few glasses of wine on the beach and a fling with a serial womaniser look like a somewhat trite route to liberation from this distance.

Director Glen Walford clearly knows the material well and on the whole makes good use of it. Unfortunately, there is a definite lag in the second section, when Shirley is packed and waiting for her friend to take her away on her adventure.

Prenger, meanwhile, is an enjoyably normal and natural Shirley, able to deliver punchlines well and mostly negotiate her way ably around a range of accents as she briefly takes on the voices of Costas, her Greek lover, and a narrow-minded Mancunian couple, among others. She even copes reasonably well with an errant flying insect landing on her mid-monologue. While the confessional nature of the show does mean that a certain level of engagement with audience reaction is almost inevitable, Prenger does, however, occasionally stray far too close to visible satisfaction at a line well delivered, especially with what is admittedly the funniest line in the show when she comes dangerously close to corpsing. To be fair, with both insect and laughter, composure and character are quickly restored.

Amy Yardley’s set is an equally mixed bag; the first half of the show takes place in a convincing enough version of a 1980s kitchen, into which a reasonable amount of time and effort seems to have been invested, but the Greek beach looks almost thrown together in comparison.

Willy Russell has never really built on what has proved to be a lasting trio of hits from the 1980s (Blood Brothers and Educating Rita being his other notable successes); in the absence of anything new, it would be interesting to see what he could do with a 2017 update of the Shirley Valentine story.

Runs until 27 May 2017 | Image: Manuel Harlan

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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