Part of a season of two plays written by Willy Russell, 'Shirley Valentine' is a one-woman show starring Meera Syal as Shirley and directed by Glen Walford. Now more than 20 years old, 'Shirley Valentine' doesn't show much sign of ageing thanks to the fact that many women are still locked into situations where their obligations to families and husbands stifle individuality and where routine overwhelms one's sense of identity.
Shirley is a 42 year-old Liverpudlian woman who has raised two children who have now flown the nest. That leaves Shirley in a humdrum existence cooking and cleaning for her husband, Joe, who can only relate to a life of regimented predictability. So, when a friend offers to take Shirley off to Greece for a two week holiday, she leaps at the chance even though she knows Joe will be furious. Nevertheless, plans are laid and the freezer is stashed with pre-coked meals so Shirley's mother can reheat them for Joe's supper, and Shirley gets her 10 year passport and heads off for adventure in the sun.
Like the other play in this season – 'Educating Rita' – 'Shirley Valentine' is largely about a character who lacks self-worth, is bored with the life she's compelled to live, and wants to reconnect with her former incarnation, ie the person she was – or thought she was - prior to getting married and becoming a housewife. This strikes a chord for many of us because, I suspect, there are few people who can truly say that they are completely content with their lot.
Of all the varying formats in the theatre, the one-actor show has to be the scariest for the performer and the toughest to bring off. When things go wrong, there's no-one to hide behind and nobody else to take the blame. Not that any blame is required here, because Meera Syal's performance is totally absorbing and she kept the entire audience pretty-well riveted throughout. But then, Meera Syal is no stranger to one-woman plays, having won a critics circle award for her show 'One of Us' which she also wrote. Ms Syal's excellent comic timing makes sure that all Willy Russell's lines hit the mark spot on, and her bubbly personality draws us all in like a magnet and keeps us well-entertained. However, I wondered why a woman with that kind of personality couldn't deal with her situation. And when Shirley says 'Who turned me into this?', I began to wonder what 'this' actually was. Even though she moans about her husband and kids, she seems in every sense the kind of person who is more than able to cope with what life could throw at her. In the film version of the play, Pauline Collins as Shirley also came across as capable and very funny, but at the same time she was also rather jaded as though ground down by her life. I found this element missing in Ms Syal's performance.
'Shirley Valentine' is great fun with some moving moments, has a good story to tell, and tells that story well thanks to a great Willy Russell script. However, there's a whiff of a 'happy ever after' ending which I think introduces an element of sentimentality into a piece which manages, for the rest of the show, to avoid it - a minor quibble in what is still an entertaining and enjoyable play.