Jodie Prenger

Jodie Prenger chips in as Shirley Valentine in a tour de force performance

Shirley Valentine

Coventry Belgrade


Shirley Valentine is another of Willy Russell’s delicious creations. After all, it was he who gave us Educating Rita, commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, no less, which won umpteen stage awards before and after the unforgettable film starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine won a clutch of Oscar nominations. Blood Brothers – a musical for which he wrote both the book and the music – was another of his many successful and vastly popular scripts.

Russell, born on Liverpool’s eastern outskirts, certainly knows his Scouse and his scouser. And scousess, as it turns out: for that’s what he gave us at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre in 1986 with Shirley Valentine. Winner of Olivier awards for both its original star and Russell himself, it’s a gorgeous play, funny and sexy (more explicitly than implicitly), joyously outrageous and, below the surface, empathetic and touching.

Here is a heroine, an appealingly chunky one - compare Patricia Routledge - in this case in the form of Jodie Prenger: a young actress of healthy girth plus a wonderful sense of humour and irony to match, whose forlorn character longs for an escape from her hopeless, sexually inept, invisible husband (Joe), and finally gets it when a freebie fortnight in Greece comes her way unexpectedly.

Unlike Julie Walters’ Rita (and Russell himself), Shirley’s not working class, either in manner or lifestyle. Designer Amy Yardley has (rightly) given her a pretty respectable kitchen, all wood cupboards, chopping boards and well-stocked fridge. It all looks very plain, pseudo-posh, but appropriate. And a wonderful counterpoint is established when Lighting Designer James Whiteside feeds in four massive grey brick buttresses, slightly ominous and eerie, that make us expect the Liverpool-to Manchester express to go trundling by (that line interestingly runs over Whiston, where former hairdresser (cue Rita) then teacher-trained Russell grew up, leaving school at 15.

Our concentration focuses, however, on the lady herself, the wonderful, blissfully inventive Prenger, who seems to have a Pandora’s box of cheeky facial expressions, umpteen unexpectedly, almost bizarrely adroit moves, twists, turns and surprisingly gainly, decorous slouches and slithers, plus Russell’s sensationally side-splitting script to deliver.   


The 1986 premiere of  Shirley Valentine, starring Noreen Kershaw

A glorious show it is indeed. True, Prenger’s Liverpudlian accent seemed to come and go, not the in-yer-face scouse (Lennon or Ringo Starr), yet her diction is a delight and a laugh at every turn. The Belgrade audience clocked every joke, every naughty line, each tantalising aside – and there are lots of them. Indeed it’s a bundle of laughs, as we are confided in – sometimes at full pelt and full belt – by Shirley about her disappointments: essentially loneliness, frustrated sexuality and a longing to be admired, even loved, for herself:  all of which hinges on this brilliantly eloquent, exquisitely crafted, often enough poignant, monologue.

Prenger’s mastery of such a massive one-person stagework is staggering: imagine if Prospero had ALL the lines in The Tempest, or Macbeth was purely a monologue in the Scottish play. This is a giant tour-de-force. And there isn’t a prompter sitting there in the (empty) prompt box. What guts. What a feat.

It’s impossible not to be captivated by such a brilliant, dare I say feisty, script and characterisation. Russell and Prenger share many qualities closely: a mastery of timing, of the pause or racy pacing, of what can be achieved by a silence hanging in the air waiting to be pricked, of how to go to the line but not cross it or overegg any witticism or image – or for that matter, how to deal with the serious all the more effectively by applying a light touch.

This is possibly the ultimate in kitchen sink drama. How on earth does Shirley make a boring domestic background come alive so as to hold a full house Coventry audience in the palm of her hand? Prenger has this gift: she plays us like a classic northern standup – Doddy of Knotty Ash; Ricky Tomlinson; Jimmy Tarbuck. Her vowels are scouse, her delivery scouse-like in it assertiveness.

So the jokes, with their wry underlay, flow: ‘She came home one morning to find her husband in bed with the milkman’; ‘After 15 years he still won’t drink the tap-water’; ‘Marriage is like the Middle East – there’s no solution’. ‘The only thing that trembled for me was the headboard’. It’s a lonely marriage when sex has waned by 42 (Shirley’s declared age). It was a time when ‘the clitoris hadn’t been discovered’ (cue a complete risqué scenette on the same subject). 


Shirley finds a new friend on her Greek adventure - a rock 

Shirley twirls and gestures and pirouettes with the ease of someone half her age, who utilises the paraphernalia of her kitchen to perfection; her silly walks rival John Cleese, and perhaps imply more. She tweaks and teases us with sundry kitchen artefacts. Props are by Lizzie Frankl and Kate Dowling: their bric-a-brac was a treat here, and even more in the second half. The credits nominate a third Props guru: Lizzie Props. That must be a first). Just one query: some detail looked as if it might come from Ikea, the chip fryer from Tesco’s, but the telephone is a dial-up. Inconsistent? And for that matter, in such a show, rich in paradox and parody, does it matter?

Part of the joy of the writing is how Jodie Prenger’s Shirley takes flight from one theme to another, with cheerful unpredictability, yet at other moments explores some key issue in surprising depth She plays, or assumes, a welter of differing roles and contrasting , all different, with ease and flexibility, and with equal aplomb, landing us with an hilarious outline of a children’s nativity play: ‘One of the Wise Men has started to wet him/herself’; or the imagined tabloid headlines – ‘Mary and Joseph in hotel booking dispute’.

As for her own teenage aspirations: ‘I wanted to be a courier or an air hostess – on Concorde’; ‘I became a rebel – I wore my school skirt so high you’d have thought it was a serviette’.

But the most tragic line of all is perhaps this one: ‘I USED to be Shirley Valentine.’ Here is a still young woman, roughly past childbearing age, for whom ‘marital’ – her married name is Bradshaw - means anything but bliss. Joe Bradshaw is – we only have her word for it – a bore, and marriage a chore. He neglects her: ‘He always talks to the cooker, the fridge or the mantelpiece’. This may be a comedy, and a very good one, but it is rooted firmly in a real personal tragedy.

Her solution is to do the same: her kitchen surroundings can’t reply, but they become her friends and her confidantes. These reliable companions alter in Act 2: she confides in a coastal rock. She has heard of her friend’s offer of a spare free ticket to Europe - won in a competition – and dreams of ‘sun, sand and taramasalata’; and more relevantly, ‘sex for breakfast, sex for lunch, sex for tea and sex for dinner’. Will she get it? A delicious red kimono-like robe sees her gearing up: ‘Olives, squid, octopus...’ Will all this meet her dreams?

When the curtain rises on Act II, Greece is a reality. Amy Yardley’s seaside set is a joy, impacting like Royal Opera’s famous set for Cosi fan tutte, with all departments cooperating: a scrummy blue cyclorama sky, a mottled blue sea that cries out to be dived into, a scrumptiously amber-lit spread of sand, and some almost human lumps of rock, large, medium, tiny, the largest looming, one almost human-faced, to whom she divulges her secret inner (or because of us, not quite so private) thoughts.


Mrs Bradshaw finds Shirley Valentine on a Greek beach

 Shirley has redone her hair, slightly quiffed like a teenage boy, younger, gayer, more available even. But she won’t go down to the main beach – ‘it’s full of tourists’. Her friend has done the dirty – met ‘a feller’ on the plane and gone off to a party leaving Shirley on her tod. She uses the time – and even serves up a presentable Greek accent.

The Props win here, too: a towel, a sunhat, a chiffon scarf, a basket, and again a glorious use of reds to match Shirley’s let-you-hair-down self-abandonment (for let her hair down she does, and looks gorgeous.) There’s such a freshness in the air it really does look. and feel, like Greece (only the cicadas are missing), and she in her scarlet outfit has the air of Hecuba or Circe or Andromache. The beautiful, freed-up expressiveness – even expressionism – of her attire colours the whole atmosphere. And alone, undistressed, she feels totally happy and content.

Director Glen Walford has directed Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound in Greece’s prime ancient theatre, at Epidauros. And her Act 2 did feel like Attic drama. From 1983 when running the Everyman – which became legendary for daring repertoire and new writing – she worked often with Willy Russell: it was Walford who commissioned and directed the original Shirley Valentine.

The laurels must go to – how could they not – to Jodie Prenger for her gargantuan performance: the apotheosis of the monologue. Prenger made her name as Nancy in the major  revival of Oliver! But I hazard she could have played Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Bill Sykes, Oliver himself, just about anyone, such is her wondrous intuition and talent.

But this show must also owe everything to Walford’s direction: beautifully detailed, scrupulously finessed, ecstatically funny.

Nicky Swift, a pretty sprightly solo singer, is Jodie Prenger’s understudy: I’d be fascinated to see what she makes of it. To 10-06-17

Roderic Dunnett


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