Monday 6 March 2023

Theatre review: Shirley Valentine

With theatre still in recovery, a guaranteed hit (it extended its run before even opening) without huge cast and set requirements is something producers could do with, so a one-woman show for the hugely beloved Future Dame Sheridan Smith would fit the bill. Add to that a title as familiar as Willy Russell's Shirley Valentine and Matthew Dunster's new West End production seems a no-brainer. Still, I did wonder, with Russell's heyday being a very specific time in the 1980s (this, Educating Rita and Blood Brothers came out within a few years of each other) if the story would feel dated. I'm not sure why, since I remember Meera Syal doing well with the show a few years ago, and in any case Smith and Dunster prove the adage true, that the more specific something is, the more universal it becomes.

I guess it's also true that at some point a story goes past being dated and turns into a period piece - something else to make me feel old, like how much older I am than Smith's Shirley Bradshaw, who at 42 is a middle-aged mum with an empty nest and feels like her best days are far behind her.

The first two scenes take place in Shirley's kitchen in suburban Liverpool, first cooking egg and chips for her husband, then later dealing with the fallout when he's not satisfied with that for his dinner. Smith quickly builds a rapport with the audience, and the smiles and comic lines - arguably the most '80s thing about the evening is her being slightly scandalised at her own use of the word "clitoris," while Smith turns the word "taramasalata" into the evening's best gag - keep coming even as it quickly becomes apparent that this is a tragicomedy: Shirley is desperately lonely, talking to the wall as if it's her only friend; she's in a marriage that's at the very least emotionally abusive, and has left her feeling like a shell of her former self. Shirley Valentine is her maiden name, and she talks about her as a different, long-gone person.

She does have at least one real-life friend though, a divorcée who's bought her a ticket to join her on holiday on a Greek island, and in the final scene we see her on the beach there, her husband's behaviour having finally pushed her to accept the offer. Here Smith nicely shows how the the forced smiles and humour have become more genuine as she's relaxed into the person she used to be, and I liked how Paul Wills's design and Lucy Carter's lighting use the same colour palette to very different effect. A lot of the specifics of Shirley Valentine may mark it out as a product of its time but it's still funny and affecting enough to work in 2023, as the details may have changed but the central uplifting message hasn't. The play's title isn't a reference to the central character but to her love interest, as Shirley has to rediscover and fall in love with the person she is at heart.

Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell is booking until the 3rd of June at the Duke of York's Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

Photo credit: Helen Murray.

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