Chocolate Factory in the West End
Those who only know this play from the movie version may be a little surprised to find that this tale of a suburban housewife who takes off for a holiday in Greece without telling her husband is a monologue. The scene does move from her Liverpool kitchen to a sunny beach in Greece but we never get to actually see the cow-eyed café owner who whisks her off in his brother's fishing boat.
In these days of EasyJet and weekend raves in Prague it might seem very dated to have a character for whom going abroad is such an enormous step but I still know middle-aged couples for whom stepping out of the familiar is a huge challenge, husbands who won't go abroad and don't know how to cook their dinner - just like Shirley's Joe. Even though their grown up children jet off to Orlando or the Spanish Costas, they just don't see that that could be for them.
Glen Wellford's production and Peter Mackintosh's sets don't mark it particularly as the 1980s, though her spick and span kitchen was probably fitted out at least that long ago, but by not adding any very modern touches it is easy to accept a woman stuck in the rut of old attitudes when others have moved on. However, this is only superficially a play about going abroad, though some of its humour comes from the cliché but still too true bad behaviour of boorish Brits. It is about anyone trying to reclaim their lives, regain the sense of their own identity they had when young.
Russell's text is, however, deeply rooted in the culture of the Liverpool background that he gives it. He has an exact ear for the speech and thought patterns and Meera Syal in this production (by the director of the play's Everyman Theatre premier all those years ago) plays them beautifully.
It's a gimmick to have her making the kitchen wall her unresponsive confidante but Syal makes it seem perfectly ordinary, enabling her to give a full-blooded performers to the audience. Some of the jokes are coarse and heavy handed but that doesn't stop them being very funny and, played with the character enjoying them herself, they are shared rather than performed, whether it is her discovery of the clitoris, the feminist friend's husband having it off with the milkman, the posh girl from school who grew up to be a high class tart or the package tourists' fear of foreign food.
Shirley Valentine has become a cheap hacks way of headlining the older woman after a holiday romance but this Shirley is not about sex, sun and sand: she is about knowing when to decide she has enough and how to recognize what you really want and grabbing it. Syal gets all the laughs but also finds the serious centre at the core of Russell's play.
Running in repertoire with "Entertaining Rita" until 30th October 2010
Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Menier Chocolate Factory
Reviewer: Howard Loxton