FringeReview UK 2020
Pauline Collins starred in the hit movie version of this Willy Russell play. This stage version sees Heather Alexander take on the role of a working-class Liverpool housewife. Funny, touching and evocative of the 1980s, Shirley Valentine tells the tale of a life lost. Through conversations with the wall, and the audience, we hear about her relationships with her husband, children, friends and acquaintances. Given the chance of a grand adventure, Shirley goes on a two week holiday to Greece, and her life is about to change.
In a packed Stables Theatre, Hastings, an excited audience waits for this performance of the classic play, Shirley Valentine.
The audience files in to see a stage set with a kitchen table, two chairs, a cooker and a sink. The back-drop shows pictures of Liverpool’s neat Victorian, terraced, houses. Before the performance starts, the play transports us time, place and culture.
Shirley enters, wearing a cap, tabard and carrying two heavy bags of shopping. Before she speaks, the audience knows that this is not a happy house, nor she, a happy woman.
Spoiler alert. This play premiered in 1986, starring Pauline Collins, it became a hit movie in 1989, and since then it has been regularly performed in theatres across the country. It tells the story of a 40 something, working-class, Liverpudlian housewife. Shirley’s children have left home, her marriage goes through the motions, and life appears to be over without having started. Almost everyone in this audience seemed familiar with the story.
Shirley Valentine endures because of the quality of its writing. Willy Russell’s script is loaded with humour, from mild chuckles to laugh out loud funny, and it tells an honest and relatable tale. The story’s emotional depth resonates with the viewer. It holds a mirror to our own brief lives, our attempts to understand life’s meaning, and the impact of our choices.
Put into the hands of a skilled actress, of the right age and look, this becomes a powerful and ultimately joyous piece of theatre. Heather Alexander is perfect for the role.
Marrying a talented actress to a great script makes watching this play a joy. From the start, Heather holds the audience’s attention. As the character of Shirley Valentine evolves, overcoming her self-doubt before coming to terms with who she is, Heather is always believable. The audience is on her side.
Being a one-woman show there is a cast of invisible characters; her friend Janet, husband Joe, Costas, the returning daughter, a nasty neighbour and an old school ‘friend’. Using a variety of Scouse accents, small gestures and changing body language, each persona becomes real.
Heather is in almost constant motion, using all the available space to present Shirley Valentine. Everything on the stage is there to perform a useful function, whether it’s to add emphasis, reinforce points or move the piece along. The Director’s close attention to detail has paid off.
Popular culture suggests that Liverpool’s sense of humour is unique and of high quality. This play lives up to that representation. Heather delivers the jokes, puns, and the situational humour with aplomb. The audience laughs in all the right places, and very importantly, they laugh often.
As the show draws to its’ uplifting ending, there is much to make the audience think. During the performance I found myself thinking about my relationship, and I found some uncomfortable echoes in my behaviour. Somewhat ironic then, that when I returned, my wife asked if I had learned anything.
One point of note, and credit, came when Shirley sat on the sea-shore with the sun setting. Whether intentional or not, the framing captures the youthful beauty and sense of life that a young Shirley Valentine once had. It was a poignant moment.
The story of the bored and disappointed mother, whose family have left and whose life seems pointless, has endured to become part of the zeitgeist. The story’s central themes have been replayed in countless TV, Film and stage productions. Ultimately this story is about life, hope and the existential nature of humanity. It is funny, touching and very well-performed. Shirley Valentine is a show worth seeing. It is Highly Recommended.