It’s just over 30 years since Willy Russell’s play Shirley Valentine first premièred at the Liverpool Everyman with Noreen Kershaw taking the title role of this one-woman play. Telling the tale of a 42-year-old working class Liverpudlian housewife who begins to assess her life on her friend handing her a ticket to Greece out of the blue, Shirley Valentine touches upon similar themes to Russell’s earlier success Educating Rita, and is almost what might have happened to Rita if education and enlightenment hadn’t saved her from a life tied to the kitchen stove.
The success of the play meant that the story was, just like Educating Rita, soon earmarked to become a film, and is now regarded as one of the most iconic British comedies of all time. With a screenplay by Russell and acclaimed performances by Alison Steadman as Jane, the flaky friend who accompanies Shirley to Greece and then abandons her for most of the holiday for the sake of a fling, and Tom Conti as the Greek lothario Costas, Pauline Collins was meanwhile cast as Shirley following a hit run at London’s Vaudeville Theatre, and was even recognised by Hollywood with an Oscar nomination for her hugely convincing portrayal of a woman seeking to shrug off her mundane existence and turn an every day fantasy into a reality.
In this anniversary revival stage production, directed by Glen Walford and currently playing at Theatre Royal Bath during an extensive UK tour, Jodie Prenger looks just as effortless in the title role, nor does she show any signs of needing the supporting cast which featured in the film. The play version calls on her to do a wide range of impersonations, from her tyrannical husband Joe to her brattish daughter Millandra, and this only fuels our imagination and our sympathy for the character. The play, far more than the film and its inevitable visual distractions, allows us to appreciate the subtleties of Russell’s script and his ability to put himself into a working class woman’s shoes. Despite three decades having elapsed since it was written, it’s still remarkably fresh and poignant, for who doesn’t know a Shirley? Her frank reflections, particularly of her school days and her failure to be heard, are greatly thought-provoking, as is the phrase ‘unused life’. Although Shirley doesn’t regard herself as anything remarkable, she wonders where Shirley Valentine (this being her maiden name) went following her marriage, and rightly thinks she’s worth more than spending the rest of her life as an unpaid skivvy for her unappreciative husband.
The first half is set entirely in Shirley’s 1980s pine kitchen with yellow ochre walls, and while Collins had the challenge of talking directly to the camera (a technique Michael Caine perfected in Alfie) for the film, it’s a pleasure to see Prenger address the audience directly, for her abundant charisma means that we are soon engrossed in the life of this frustrated woman who doesn’t see light of day other than a trip to the shops. Treated like part of the furniture by husband Joe, who expects his dinner on the table the moment he comes home from work, Shirley has a bottle of ‘Sauvignon’ on the go whilst regaling us and the ‘Wall’ with stories of the past as she peels potatoes for that evening’s dinner of egg and chips. Prenger even manages to look like she’s cooking – perhaps she was. It’s Thursday she tells us and Jo will not only be livid not to find his regular Thursday night meal of fillet steak on the table, but will think she’s gone loop da loop when she confesses that she donated it to their vegetarian neighbour’s delighted bloodhound.
Full of delicious humour which Prenger makes the most of with adept comic timing, a flawless Liverpudlian accent and seemingly boundless energy, the roof nearly came off with laughter when she began surmising that her lacklustre sex life was largely down to Sigmund Freud’s inaccurate guidance on orgasm, and the fact that her generation hadn’t ‘discovered’ the clitoris. You can’t help rooting for Shirley to go to Greece and find out what it’s all about, and there were many more laughs when we find her dressed in a blue silk suit and white hat ready to leave for the airport without having told her husband that she’s going. She’s been secretly preparing her escape, and she’s rather proud of herself. Besides, there’s a freezer full of meals and she’s roped her mother in to clean and tidy so Joe will barely notice she’s gone.
Shirley is already transformed by the opening of the second act – positively radiant – and, this time sunbathing on a remote beach with a rock instead of her usual wall to chat to, she tells us what’s been happening as if we were her closest confidant. Amy Yardley’s set, merely a blue backdrop, a pretend stretch of sand and a few large rocks, isn’t especially imaginative, yet perhaps it’s because of this that we can so easily picture the scenes Shirley relates. Her ‘friend’ Jane has run off with a practical stranger, leaving her to fend for herself, while an annoying British couple invited her to join them for dinner merely in order to ease their own discomfort at seeing a single woman dine alone. A boat trip with Greek waiter Costas proves revelatory, however, and it’s all building up to Shirley wondering what she’s going home for.
Shirley has fought too hard to turn back now, and having let the plane go without her in the hope of making a new life for herself as a waitress at Costas’s taverna, it’s proof of how far she has come that she simply shrugs it off when she returns to to find him flirting with another female tourist. This journey is all about Shirley Valentine and it’s only right that, as the sound of the waves crash in the distance and she takes up her usual seat on the beach whilst waiting for Joe to arrive several weeks later, we don’t know the outcome or if he will be able to persuade her to return to England with him. Whatever she decides, one thing’s for sure, Shirley isn’t going to be taken for granted any more. A spellbinding production and a tour-de-force performance that is undoubtedly Prenger’s finest hour, you hang on her every word throughout, laugh ’til you ache, and are as sad to leave the theatre as you are to arrive home after a rejuvenating holiday in Greece. Don’t miss it, it may just change your life.
Our reviewer saw Shirley Valentine at Theatre Royal Bath where it runs from 10-15 April 2017 as part of a wider UK tour. For more information and to book tickets please visit the website.