Willy Russell’s ‘Shirley Valentine’ comes to the Edinburgh stage for its 30th anniversary in a whirlwind of wit, borderline-inappropriate sexual humour, and surprising depth of thought, leaving audiences gasping with laughter and racing to go on a soul-searching holiday.
Trapped in her domestic life in Liverpool, Shirley (Jodie Prenger) dreams of escape from her fitted cabinets, oblivious children, and inconsiderate husband. When the opportunity arises for a fortnight trip to Greece, she jumps at the offer and swishes away to a holiday of self-discovery and dubious spiritual exploration, helped along by bottles of Greek wine.
This iconic play can be difficult to do justice to, yet Prenger was absolutely fantastic, keeping energy levels high throughout the show. There are few one-woman shows as exceptional as this, and so to see Prenger bring her hilarity and effervescence to the stage was a delight. She fully embraced the physicality of her character, impersonating the different people in Shirley’s life with such liveliness that it felt like there were six people on stage rather than just one. One impersonation that the audience never seemed to get enough of was Shirley’s onetime-lover Costas, the Greek taverna-owner and philanderer. Shirley’s jokes are hilarious and well-aimed, poking fun at lazy husbands, hypocritical friends, and British tourists abroad, ordering eggs and chips at a Greek restaurant.
The strength of the play comes from the relatability of Shirley’s character. She is jaded but optimistic, and despite the stagnancy and discontent that she feels in Liverpool, she represents that bright hope that there is an escape from this monotony. The audience is privy to Shirley’s fears and her darkest thoughts, and in spite of her insecurities, she rediscovers herself and finds a new lease of life. As we watch her swan across the stage in her silk robe, behaving for all the world like a Greek goddess, we feel inspired to toss away our proverbial aprons and join her.
The staging of the play made for a fully immersive experience, bringing the audience ever closer to Shirley. Her Liverpool kitchen, which included fully-working appliances, made for a more intimate, almost conspiratorial setting in which we get to know Shirley on a personal level as she fries eggs and peels potatoes. The second act of the play, set on a Greek beach, was a more open, casual setting which complemented Shirley’s transformation from cloistered housewife to carefree holidaymaker. Let none be fooled, however – this is not a superficial tale of holiday romances and wine-drinking. Shirley demonstrates a startling awareness of the many truths of life, lifting her from the realm of parody to that of a very real and lovable character.
That refusal to remain a mere joke forms the heart of the play as a call to action. Shirley takes the audience through the innermost questions of her mind, ranging from the exploration of female sexuality, to the need to live as fully as possible. We watch her reconcile with her stretch marks, and feel better about our own; we see her exalt in her freedom and newly-rediscovered personhood, and itch to pack our bags to find ourselves again. Shirley convinces us of how wasteful it is to forget to live, to settle for less than what we truly want.
As a whole, Glen Walford’s production of ‘Shirley Valentine’ is utterly phenomenal. It had the audience crying with laughter, leaping to their feet to give Prenger the ovation she deserved, and perhaps most importantly, feeling twenty years younger and raring to taste life as fully as Shirley does.