Jodie Prenger

The superb Jodie Prenger as Shirley Valentine, in deep discussion with the wall. Pictures: Manuel Harlan

Shirley Valentine

The New Alexandra Theatre


THERE are two stars of this most welcome return of frustrated housewife Shirley, Jodie Prenger and Willy Russell's brilliant script.

Good comedy has to be funny but great comedy needs more, it needs everyday situations you can relate to, and it needs pathos to balance the laughs and Russell mixes all the ingredients to perfection.

All it needs is a quite beautiful performance from Prenger to bring the words and Shirley to life. I have only ever seen Shirley Valentine in studio productions, confined spaces where she has two walls to talk to, the scripted one in the kitchen and the invisible fourth wall surrounding her which gives the play its intimacy.

Prenger has a full stage and large theatre to fill and does it magnificently, generating that necessary feeling that she is chatting just to us in first her kitchen and then on a Greek beach. She uses the stage well, adding gestures and movement not needed in the confinement of a studio – Shirley has to work for front row, back row and gods.

Russell's Shirley cuts a sad figure. She is 42 and life seems to have passed her by. The burning fires of passion and exhilaration when she first married Joe and they sat in the bath together and did exciting things have long ago died down. Look closely and a few embers might still be glowing.

She and Joe are in a rut, a rut that gets deeper day by day. They share a house but not really a life. All is explained by Shirley in a very funny, friendly, matter of fact way. There is no bitterness, no anger, but a resigned acceptance . . . almost! She feels that she and her life have become worthless, but perhaps the embers still have some life in them after all. She wants to be alive again, how she once was, be Shirley Valentine again.

Thursday is steak night – except in a little flash of rebellion – tonight she is cooking chips and egg and already knows Joe's reaction.

Friend Jane has booked Shirley on a two week holiday with her in Greece. She dare not go, except, as Joe  is . . . well Joe,  and the spark of rebellion grows, Shirley takes the plunge and heads off into the sun – leaving a freezer full of frozen meals and a note telling Joe she has gone stuck on the fridge door.

The monologue is populated with a whole cast of characters, from her son and daughter Brian and Millandra; the goody two shoes from school; the cruel head; Gillian the bragging neighbour; manhunting feminist Jane; boorish, racist guests in the hotel; and Costas, the charming waiter with a skilled line in chat for single, middle aged women, full of honourable promises he knows he will never be required to keep.

 Shirley in Greece

Shirley Valentine rediscovered on a Greek island

And we leave Shirley who stayed long after the holiday ended, sipping wine by the sea. Shirley Bradshaw is no more, once more she is Shirley Valentine.

Joe has become less aggressive each time he calls and now he is on his way to see her. Whether the pair will rediscover what they once had or call it a day . . . that's up to you and Shirley Valentine to decide.

Prenger lives the part, bringing out the sadness, frustration and pathos of a woman who feels her life stagnating, all under a cloak of wonderful humour. It is not an easy role. On stage alone, holding an audience for almost two hours, is no mean feat. An enthusiastic, well deserved standing ovation says she succeeded far better than words.

Behind all the laughs, and there are plenty, there is a brilliantly crafted, moving, very human play. Russell has the remarkable ability to write scripts that remain contemporary. There might be a couple of references that fix the time in the 80s if you listen carefully, but this is about people and their emotions and feelings whether 31 years ago when it was written, or today, tomorrow or whenever.

Each time I see the play there is something new, something missed last time around and it was interesting to see it on a large stage, helped by Amy Yardley's clever design, first of a kitchen, angled walls centred on the stage, then of huge rocks on the beach, again helping to centre the action, without Prenger ever appearing lost. Thoughtful and skilful design while Glen Walford, the director, has done a fine job in giving an intimate feel to a one hander on a large stage.

 This is the first major revival of Russell's play which was a huge success from its first appearance at Liverpool's Everyman in 1986.

Two years later it was a West End success, a year after that Broadway and a successful movie version – then all went quiet, although there was a US national tour starring Lorretta Swit in 1995. Not that it was ever forgotten, it is a regular for small, studio productions and with amateur companies. But this will be the first real chance to see the play for many people. Don't miss it. To 11-03-17

Roger Clarke


 shirley and chips

And behind the wall


THERE is only one woman on stage for the whole of this Willy Russell comedy, but by the time the audience leave the theatre they know a great deal about ten others and are probably laughing all the way home.

That’s a tribute to BBC TV’s I’d Do Anything winner Jodie Prenger who gives a brilliant performance as the bored, middle aged Liverpool housewife, Shirley Valentine, who suddenly gets a taste of the good life when a girlfriend takes her on a sun-kissed freebie holiday to the golden sands of Greece.

She’s in the kitchen cooking ‘chips and egg’ for husband Joe – who’s expecting steak – when the story opens, and she eventually flies away without telling him and begins a heart-warming adventure even after her best pal deserts her for a while after meeting ‘a groin’ on the plane.

Shirley’s habit of chatting to the kitchen wall while sipping a glass of wine switches to talking to a rock on a Grecian beach, and Jodie’s clever and amusing delivery is so effective you almost forget she is all alone with her stories from home and abroad.

It’s hilarious at times, especially when she meets Costas in his taverna, goes on a romantic boat trip with him and chuckles at his admiration for her stretch lines after he has a pretty blunt way of explaining that his intentions are honorable. “I not want to…….” Oh yes?

Anyone who has left a boring existence for a fortnight of fun in the sun will understand Shirley Valentine’s glee in Greece. And Jodie brings her to life with wonderful skill and delightful comedy timing, thoroughly deserving the inevitable standing ovation.

Directed by Glen Walford, Shirley Valentine continue chatting to a wall and a rock – and the audience, To 11-03-17.

 Paul Marston


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