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Shirley Valentine

Willy Russell
Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke
(2005)

Tessa Peake-Jones as Shirley Valentine

The thing about Willy Russell is – whatever he tells you, he’s been there.

The hairdressing salon in Educating Rita, for instance. That was his first job after leaving school. Our Day Out - he was there on the bus, either as teacher or pupil, or perhaps both. And we know when the lights come up on the suburban kitchen in John Adams’s current production of Shirley Valentine (now running at the Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke, until 2nd July) that Willy Russell has spent hours in such a kitchen, absorbing anecdotes and confidences which he would later reconstruct into this witty and absorbing drama.

Although the play is a monologue (superbly sustained by Tessa Peake-Jones), we come to know so many of the characters who contribute to Shirley’s sterile existence: her insensitive husband, Joe, her selfish children and her background of unsympathetic family, teachers and schoolmates, for we find parallels to these people in our own lives. So that when Shirley decides to break away, albeit just for a fortnight’s holiday in Greece, we want to raise a collective cheer. Deep down, however satisfactory our own lives on the surface, there isn’t one of us who doesn’t occasionally wish he or she could do the same.

Of course, this is a play which requires a very special actor. Not just one with warmth and sincerity and the technical skills to make the most of Russell’s witty lines, but an actor who can reach out to us and make us feel a valued part of the production. And Tessa Peake-Jones, best known perhaps for her role as the much put upon Raquel in Only Fools and Horses is an inspired choice here. By the end of the play, when Shirley has not only discovered her own path but seems likely to be able to sow seeds of fulfillment even in the apparently barren landscape of her marriage, we are glad for her. She has become part of us.

Elroy Ashmore’s set contributes a great deal. Before the play opens we get a rooftop scene of Liverpool at twilight, then in the first act an uninspiring functional kitchen with flat fluorescent lighting and few personal touches. This contrasts effectively with the scene at the seashore in Act 2, where we are bathed in sunshine so bright that we can almost feel the warm Aegean Sea lapping our ankles and find ourselves mentally reaching for the Factor 25. As in Act One, where we can smell chips frying and watch Shirley Valentine break eggs into a pan of hot fat and can’t wait for her to make her escape and find her real life, we are drawn into the scene.

But with a difference.

This time we don’t want the experience to end, either for Shirley or for ourselves. Which is Willy Russell’s great appeal . He isn’t just presenting us with a funny, thought-provoking play. What he’s really saying to the audience is: Look . . . if Shirley Valentine can discover the liberating effects of Greek sunshine and the whereabouts of her clitoris, there’s hope for you yet.

So stop whingeing about your situation and start living!

Anne Hill is standing in for Kevin Catchpole while he is in hospital

Reviewer: Anne Hill