“I used to be Shirley Valentine,” explains the focus of Willy Russell’s 1986 one-woman play; a 42 year old Liverpudlian woman who, now that the children have flown the nest, is fed up with life as Shirley Bradshaw, and frightened of life beyond the kitchen wall with which she frequently engages in conversation. However, there’s a possibility of escape: an all-paid, two week holiday on a Greek island. She’s genuinely tempted to go.
Three decades on, this story of the put-upon housewife, who again “falls in love with the idea of living”, still resonates with audiences
Three decades on, this story of the put-upon housewife, who again “falls in love with the idea of living”, still resonates with audiences (especially female audiences of a certain age) as much as it makes them laugh. It’s also a brilliant—and sadly all too rare—role for a maturer woman, although not one without its challenges; throughout it’s near two-hour running time, there is no one else on stage to hold the audience’s attention. No wonder it has attracted actors from Pauline Collins (who played the role in the West End and on film) to Meera Syal.
This 2017 tour stars Jodie Prenger—“the People’s Nancy” in Cameron McIntosh’s 2009 revival of Oliver!—who is undoubtedly a strong stage presence, easily grabbing her audience’s attention from the start. Her comedic timing is also very good; there are points during Russell’s sharp-as- nails script where Prenger genuinely excels. Yet genuine charisma, stage presence and comic timing are not necessarily enough; there’s still something lacking about this Shirley. Strangely enough, Prenger often feels more emotionally truthful when Shirley is re-enacting other people: her husband, her children, the competitive neighbour or the former classmate with the surprising career.
There’s little unexpected about this production, however; Glen Walford’s direction is unobtrusive, while Amy Yardley’s naturalistic kitchen—all yellow and orange faded to nicotine-stained brown—is solid enough to let Prenger actually make egg and chips live on stage. In contrast, the post-interval Greek shore is an abstract 3D cartoon of make-believe rocks and flat yellow and ultramarine, worryingly suggesting that—far from rediscovering life—our Shirley has fallen into fantasy-land.