Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell. Performed by Sue Howell, directed by Michael Sutton. At Theatre 3, August 18 – 29, 2004. Bookings 6257 1950 (theatre) 6281 0250 (all hours).
The advertising calls Shirley Valentine a "smash hit comedy". A more academic reference calls the play "a witty monologue". Sue Howell, however, underplays the comedy and wit in favour of an underlying sadness in the character of Shirley Bradshaw (nee Valentine).
I rather liked this interpretation. It avoids raucous superficial laughter, invokes a quieter response, and allows us time to absorb Shirley's feelings about how her youthful self, Shirley Valentine, became lost in the "cribb'd, cabin'd and confin'd" English suburban life of wife and mother Shirley Bradshaw. Her observations about orgasms, men, feminists and English xenophobia are not merely witty, but are little illuminations in self-understanding.
Sue Howell's Shirley is not presented to shock or titillate. She makes herself available to us, for us to identify with, as she rediscovers the spontaneity of being Shirley Valentine at the age of 42. We know both the joy and the sadness she will feel in the end, when, as her husband walks past her table outside the taverna at the edge of the sea in Greece, and fails to recognise her, she will reveal herself to him. "I'm Shirley Valentine," she will say. "I'll never be Shirley Bradshaw again." He must go home to Liverpool alone.
Technical production was a little amiss on opening night - some extraneous noises off, some recording levels too high, cues too early and changes too abrupt. The sets are nicely done, with a fully operational kitchen in which Shirley cooks real eggs and chips. I'm a bit concerned that by August 29 Theatre 3 will be coated with a fine film of cooking oil, but this realism succeeds in establishing a rapport between Shirley and her ever-listening audience, the fourth wall, which never answers back.
Willy Russell's "talking head" device, so similar to Alan Bennett's work, is perhaps an English dramatic form, well suited to English culture and character. Howell faithfully creates the accents and intonations of not only Liverpudlian Shirley but of the various other English types that Shirley imitates. Centring the character in her own environment strengthens our understanding and makes this a successful production.
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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