Over the past thirty years or so, the character of Shirley Valentine has almost passed into folklore. Everyone knows about the kindly but downtrodden Liverpudlian housewife and mother who feels beyond her sell-by date even though she’s only 42 and has so much to give, if only she knew how, to whom and where. Whenever the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle (who loved the film and also saw Hannah Gordon perform the role in the West End as a Glaswegian Shirley) started saying “Hello Wall”, you knew she was building up to something. Whenever a guy starts spouting some pretentious twaddle about something they know nothing about (honestly, it can happen) Mrs Chrisparkle (along with many others I’m sure) will adopt a sideways glance and say, to no one in particular, “aren’t men full of shit?” Whenever you meet an awful couple on holiday, don’t you always expect their names are going to be Jeannette and Dougie?
Willy Russell’s film adaptation of his own stage play has to rank as one of the best stage-to-cinema conversions there’s ever been. Actually to see the people in Shirley’s life, that she only talks of in the play, really brings the story to life; and Joanna Lumley and Tom Conti, amongst others, are just so good that it’s very hard to think of those characters as any other life-form. Even when you see a brand-new stage version like this, it’s still hard not to hear the voice of Joanna Lumley say through Shirley’s mouth “but darling I’m a hooker” or to hear Tom Conti ask “you think I want to make f* ck with you?” It’s all so engrained in our communal psyche. Twenty years ago, when two or more people were gathered together they would quote from Monty Python. Now it’s much more likely they’ll quote from Willy Russell.
I was surprised to realise I hadn’t seen Shirley Valentine on stage before the Menier production starring Meera Syal seven years ago. There’d been a traditional Scouse Shirley and a Glaswegian one in the past; why not an Asian one? And it worked very well. In this production, directed by Glen Walford, who commissioned the original play and directed the first production, it’s back to the trad version, with Jodie Prenger playing the role at most venues on the tour, and Nicky Swift as Shirley in some selected venues, of which the Royal and Derngate was one. I wasn’t aware of that; I was fully expecting to see Ms Prenger in her pinny preparing chips and egg and when I realised, last-minute, that was not to be the case, I confess I was a tinge disappointed, as I’m something of a Jodie fan.
If you’re in the same boat, gentle reader, fear not. Nicky Swift gives us a lively and endearing Shirley, full of hopes and dreams, affection, kindness and cheekiness. This is a very positive Shirley, always looking on the bright side, with that desire for adventure very near the surface. There could never be any doubt that this Shirley would get on that plane for Greece, come hell or highwater. She was always going to fare well abroad. And when her friend lets her down by getting off with a guy on the plane so Shirley’s all alone in Greece, you sense she would consider this just all part of the adventure. She’s delighted to be on her own at last, that’s why she finds the quietest and most remote part of the beach as possible. For someone this self-reliant, the only surprise is that she didn’t do it years earlier.
As usual, we get treated to the sight of someone genuinely cooking chips and egg on stage; there’s no disguising that delicious waft heading over the stalls. Amy Yardley has created a very serviceable kitchen of which Shirley is the mistress; all mod cons and no expense spared on making her domestic life as pleasant as possible. No old-fashioned frying pan for this Shirley, her chips are done in the most discreet of deep fat fryers.
It’s a sad little play in many respects, but Nicky Swift’s performance removes a lot of the sadness and replaces it with hope. If her Milandra thinks Shirley’s Greek Odyssey is disgusting, she needs to take a long hard look at herself and be grateful for having such a forward-thinking mum. A packed audience really enjoyed this beautifully performed masterpiece of a play. It’s still got Plymouth, Newcastle and Dartford to go at the end of this long tour. Worth paying good drachmas for!