Shirley Valentine, Bath Theatre Royal and tour

MANY people will know this play, one of Willy Russell’s most famous works, along with Educating Rita and Blood Brothers, from the film starring Pauline Collins. Collins played the title role in London’s West End when it opened there in 1988, directed by Simon Callow. Two years earlier the Artistic Director of the Liverpool Everyman, Glen Walford, commissioned the play from Russell and was its first director.  How exciting then, some thirty years later, that Walford has directed this new tour starring Jodie Prenger.

The play is Shirley’s story, from being trapped in a lifeless marriage, spending most of the first half of the play making “chips and egg” for husband Joe, to her escape with friend Jane to a Greek island, where she discovers herself and realises that life has plenty to offer anyone, whatever their age or background.

There are other characters in the play; daughter Millandra, sharing a flat with her friend, son Brian, living in a squat, husband Joe, friend Jane, who pays for the trip to Greece, Greek lover Costas, high-class hooker Marjorie, from Shirley’s schooldays, her headmistress, nosey but jealous neighbour Gillian, Greek waiters, English holidaymakers, etc., and all of these many and varied characters were played by well-known actors in the film.

The clever writing of Willy Russell, however, enables every single one of these characters to be portrayed by one person. Of course, it has to be one very good actor, and Jodie Prenger is exactly that.  Prenger has crafted her comedy timing and delivery in shows such as One Man, Two Guvnors and Calamity Jane and proved her ability to hold an audience on her own in last year’s tour of one-woman show Tell Me on a Sunday.  She now gives a remarkable and powerful performance as Shirley, from the comedy monologues of Act One to the more personal, sensitive passages in Act Two as she realises just where she wants to be, spiritually and geographically.

She also completely inhabits all of the dozen or more other characters, with different walks, accents, subtle changes of delivery, and an amazing ability which brings each one to life. As we leave the theatre it is hard to believe that everything we have just seen was delivered by one very talented actor.

The director obviously knows the play better than most, and she brings out Prenger’s natural ability to entertain, with more of the vaudeville performer in the first half, and more subtlety, more reflection, more reality, in the second. The sound and lighting design matches the subtlety too, with gentle soundscapes of sea, hotel dining room, taverna, the chirrup of cicadas and the bright blue reflected sky at the back of the stage gradually turning red with the Mediterranean sunset.

This is a thoroughly entertaining, funny, thought-provoking play, tightly directed, beautifully set and lit, and performed to perfection by Miss Prenger. Catch it if you can.


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