Willy Russell’s iconic one-woman play Shirley Valentine premiered on the stage in 1986. Sheridan Smith had been born just five years earlier, in 1981. She has now reached the required age to take on the part, and we are blessed as she could have easily been born to play this role. It is a perfect match of actress and character.
Masterfully written, beautifully staged and exceptionally performed
Smith plays Shirley Valentine as if we have simultaneously just met her and know her intimately. We, the audience, are there as reliably as her kitchen wall whilst also needing to be told exactly how her friends and family fit into her life. It is a fine line to tread, though Smith accomplishes it easily.
The show opens with Shirley in her kitchen. The design by Paul Wills is simple yet elegant showing hints of rooms – and life – beyond the kitchen. His task is more complex than a lot of set designers as this room has to function for the famous cooking of egg and chips. The act two set was stunning to behold. A special mention must also go out to the costuming by Paul Wills (again) and Jessica Dixon as her outfits matched wonderfully with the sets – and lighting by Lucy Carter – to create a sumptuous image to marvel at. The entire visual spectacle had unity and integrity throughout and so credit must go to director Matthew Dunster.
It is, however, Sheridan Smith’s moment. The warmth displayed is engaging from start to finish. On the night I watched there was a very loud and well timed cackle from an audience member rather early on in the show. Smith remained in character whilst acknowledging the laugh in such the way the entire audience burst into applause and laughter simultaneously. It was an early indicator that we were in very safe hands for the next couple of hours.
It’s rare to feel that everyone around you is able to find something in the play that speaks to them, but that happened in this theatre. It is the nature of Willy Russell’s play that it has an affinity with the human psyche and the desires that we all share. By the end of the night I was moved, all those around me were moved and possibly even Smith herself was moved by the audience reaction that followed. This is one of those shows that will live long in the memory. Masterfully written, beautifully staged and exceptionally performed.