Written by Willy Russell, Shirley Valentine is a superb one women story of triumph, of recognising the worth of being in the moment, the importance of living for yourself and knowing that things have a shelf life and sometimes you need to break open the walls that keep you safe, to really experience living again, and learn to love yourself.
This 30th anniversary stage production directed by Glen Walford, who commissioned and directed the original Shirley Valentine in Liverpool in 1986 is a love affair with the Theatre. It’s a touch perfect production, the set and direction tight and clear, the lights and soundscape just the right amount of suggestiveness and it all centres on this utterly beguiling, convincing and engaging performance from Jodie Prenger.
She is playing Shirley, the middle-aged housewife heroine of Willy Russell’s award-winning play who first challenges then decides to join her friend and escape her domestic drudgery in Liverpool for a Greek holiday which will open her to differences in living and ultimately change her life.
Prenger’s performance is a masterclass in understated brilliance, her comic timing so sharp is seems effortless, her small silent pauses just enough for us to fill them with our sighs, possibly our tears and empathy before she whips it up and away from us, like her ultra animated tea towel, and throws us into laughter. From eyes welling up with the brutal honestly of her self-regard to laugh out loud finishing of sentences this is a stylish switch back performance of a women volcanically rising into her prime.
Prenger is a slightly more glamorous Shirley than the Pauline Collins version but this makes her feel more contemporary and for a 30-year-old script this holds up superbly as the observations of her family’s behaviour are not beholden to the technology they use.
Russell’s writing of female working class characters is superb, he voices them in an authentic, considerate and empowering way and there are not enough roles this powerful for women. It’s an inspiring story and Shirley’s journey is a deliberate and easy to follow map towards the unknowns. From the same and stifling life she shared with a man she’s grown familiar with, to a foreign holiday with the potential to change everything.
Shirley stays with us, conversationally giving us insight and understanding, ostensibly taking to her ‘confidant’ –the Wall- and then ‘the Rock’ when in Greece but actually talking directly to us, the audience and Prenger appears to connect to each and every member of the audience, she’s superbly there and present in a role which is all about being utterly present in the moment.
Her change of voice for neighbours, family and husband are superb and she’s physically funny, a shifted shoulder and sideways hop across the stage getting huge laughs, her body is as agile as her voice and I seriously enjoyed watching this superb animated acting, she made me laugh and laugh again with her psychical shifts of tone.
I could gush more, I will gush more, but book yourself a ticket now, this was an unexpected treat and I left feeling notably empowered by Russell’s life affirming writing, as relevant now to everyone as it was thirty years ago, but also enchanted by this tour de force performance from Prenger. With the audience on their feet giving her a tumultuous applause, well deserved, Prenger offers some of it to ‘The Rock’ sitting next to her in the second half beach set. Modest, charming and seriously funny, Prenger herself rocks!
Utterly perfect and a flawless performance of the oncoming renaissance of a woman lost to other people’s low expectations of her and her own re-founding of her pure self through the realistic realisation of a simple dream and the unconditional acceptance of the consequences.
Book now: Recommended.
Theatre Royal Brighton until Saturday, July 22