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Shirley Valentine

Willy Russell
Derby Playhouse
(2004)

Willy Russell's one-woman play about a 42-year-old housewife who wants to break out of her humdrum life is both challenging and daunting: it must give an actress an incredible buzz being alone on stage and the focus of attention but the part has about 16,000 words - more even than Hamlet.

Director Uzma Hameed decided she needed to cast the part before Christmas, giving the actress plenty of time to get to grips with the role. She chose as Shirley Valentine Hilary Tones, an experienced actress who played Lady Macduff in Macbeth at Shakespeare's Globe, has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and who in the summer made her West End debut in Franco Zeffirelli's production of Absolutely! (Perhaps) at Wyndhams Theatre.

But no amount of preparation can recreate actually being out there in the spotlight, with no one to turn to if anything goes wrong. After a nervous opening in which she momentarily forgot she was supposed to be a Scouser, Tones settled down to give a stunning performance. All the more remarkable when you consider she has to cope with cooking her unseen husband's chips and egg in the fully functional kitchen as well and assuming different accents and reciting the mammoth part.

Tones is totally at home with the witty, incisive script - it never ceases to amaze me how Russell can get inside the mind of his female characters - and she immerses herself in the role so much that she appears to be speaking on a one-to-one basis with each member of the audience.

She makes the most of lines such as "Marriage is like the Middle East - there's no solution" and "Sex is like Sainsbury's - overrated." She is also convincing when she confides in the kitchen wall, letting it into her innermost thoughts and even at one point telling it to shut up for apparently interrupting her.

Tones is highly emotional when she wonders what happened to the carefree Shirley Valentine of her youth, terrified of what might happen to her if she left her husband, and philosophical when she contemplates how her old self "got lost in all this unused life".

In the end Tones masters Liverpudlian, Mancunian and Greek accents with ease.

Throughout the evening Tones delivers her lines with a freshness that means even if you know them from seeing the play or Lewis Gilbert's film, it's as though you're hearing them for the first time. That was one of the many reasons why some of the audience gave her a standing ovation.

Actually, Tones is not on her own on stage - Nigel Woodhouse joins in at all the right times with his guitar accompaniment which is exceptionally atmospheric.

He gets involved in the action too, wearing a tea towel on his head to take the part of a shepherd when Shirley describes her son's nativity play. And he got so carried away with trying the chips Shirley cooked for her husband that he missed the first couple of notes of his next tune!

As for the set, designer Leslie Travers, who is making his Derby debut, has come up with a masterpiece. The first act features the kitchen of Shirley's semi-detached home complete with working appliances and even a wooden fence visible through the window. After the interval, when Shirley finds herself on a Greek beech, there is a huge postcard at the back of the stage proclaiming "Greetings from Corfu" with waves which actually ripple and stars come out when the sun goes down.

Hameed and Tones' Shirley Valentine is as tasty an offering as the kalamari Shirley has during her first few days in the Mediterranean. Greece is the word; Tones gives a near saintly performance.

"Shirley Valentine" runs until February 28th

Reviewer: Steve Orme