The Theatreguide.London Review
Menier Chocolate Factory Spring 2010; Trafalgar Studios Summer-Autumn 2010
Two things are undeniably true about playwright Willy Russell. He is brilliant at writing working class women characters and, although he can be dark (c.f. Blood Brothers) he's at his most attractive writing lovely, engaging and life-affirming fables (Even Blood Brothers has that quality until about two-thirds of the way through).
And few fables could possibly be more endearing than that of Shirley Valentine, the 42-year old Liverpool housewife who is just becoming aware of how much her life has shrunk and dried up when a two-week holiday in Greece liberates her.
She has a brief affair with a Greek waiter (of course), but mainly rediscovers her love for life and for herself, and has the warm wisdom to end the play prepared to offer the same opportunity to her bewildered husband.
Those who know only the 1989 film may be surprised to find that the original play is a monologue.
None of the other characters appears - they are all just described or imitated by Shirley as she chatters away to (in the absence of any other sympathetic listeners) her kitchen wall or a rock on the Greek beach.
(That idea may sound horribly twee, but it is actually infectiously jolly, and draws the audience into her tale.)
Dozens, possibly hundreds of actresses have played Shirley over the years - including Russell himself, who once filled in for an ailing star and wound up winning a Best Actress award - and it works every time, adapting to what each performer brings to it.
Directed astutely by Glen Walford, Meera Syal brings a comedienne's timing and control of the audience, finding all the jokes - and there are many – without having to strain or push them too hard.
She has a small tendency to rush through the more serious moments, perhaps a bit too eager to get to the next laugh, but that will probably even out in time, as she comes to trust the quieter moments more.
But the play's warmth and health and generosity come through even now, making this one of those rare theatrical experiences you actually come out of feeling good and refreshed and, in some private way, healed.
Shirley Valentine is being offered in rep with Russell's Educating Rita, with a different cast and director - evidently the first time anyone has ever thought to do that.
The plays complement each other nicely, as both are about women finding an unexpected path to richer and happier lives, and both are done so well here that it would be difficult to recommend one over the other.
See both - check with the theatre for the performance schedule - and get a double dose of Willy Russell's life-affirming elixir.
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