On Saturday afternoon Owen and I made a trip to the Menier Chocolate Factory to see one half of their new season of plays by Willy Russell, SHIRLEY VALENTINE.
This and the accompanying production of EDUCATING RITA of course trail the memories of the big screen versions - neither of which I was particularly keen on. To be perfectly honest, I wasn't all that struck on SHIRLEY VALENTINE the first time I saw it with Pauline Collins back in the day at the Vaudeville Theatre.
I remember laughing every so often but I found the comedy a bit too pat, a bit too sit-com in style, a bit obvious. There was no denying the excellence of Pauline Collins and she certainly gave a real star performance which deservedly won her a raft of awards along with the rare honour of being allowed to immortalise her performance in the film, not always a given.
So I was vaguely curious to see how it holds up 22 years later. Actually I found that history was repeating, while I found the first act still playing like a vaguely amusing sit-com, I was won over by the inspired casting of Meera Syal as Shirley. I had hugely enjoyed her performance in RAFTA, RAFTA at the National a few years ago and was interested to see how she would respond to the challenge of a one-woman show.We saw only her second performance in front of an audience as Shirley so the occasional stumble could be forgiven and she negotiated her way through the first two scenes well.
We all know Meera Syal is an accomplished actress as well as writer so it's no surprise she can multi-task on stage too - during the first scene she cooks as she acts! Yep them are real chips in the deep fat fryer and eggs scrambling away in the frying pan - dangerous smells to have wafting around you with an empty stomach just after lunchtime. A helpful generous squirt of air-freshener was dispensed during the scene change!
Syal nailed the laughs that are to be had in the script but more than anything, she managed to find the sadness in the character and in the moments when Shirley realises that life has reduced her to being just someone's wife and someone's mother, she has you despairing with her. The second half, where Shirley goes to Greece and finds her long-lost self, was by far the best part of the show and Meera Syal rose to the challenge of giving us a character that it was a pleasure to spend a few hours with.
She also coped well with an ominous snap under a raised part of the stage masquerading as a sand dune. Looking at the bottom of her shoe she said "Oops I think I killed something" and successfully rode out her own and the audience's laughter to continue on. A fine example of including the audience in 'on the joke' but also knowing when to get our broken concentration back on track.
Director Glen Walford directed the show's first-ever outing in Liverpool in 1986 so knows the play inside out and charted the character's progress to self-realisation well. Walford is herself a fine performer and I remember well her tough-as-nails performance as a Soho clip-joint manageress in LOVE ON THE PLASTIC at the long-gone Half Moon Theatre.