ESK Valley Theatre producer Sheila Carter has strived for five years to acquire the performing rights for Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine.
“I knew it would really suit us and our audience,” she said, beaming, as Tuesday’s full house gathered outside the Robinson Institute for a pre-show catch-up after a Covid-enforced fallow summer in 2020.
Persistence paid off when, bingo, Carter spotted the 2021 availability of Russell’s one-woman play. A contract was duly signed to complete Esk Valley Theatre’s hattrick of Russell comedies after the two-hander Educating Rita in August 2016 and the push-the-boat-out tenth anniversary production One For The Road with its cast of four two summers earlier.
From four to two to one, the cast size drops, but what a one: size really does not matter here! Quality over quantity, as the saying goes.
Director Mark Stratton has picked a right good one too in Ashley Hope Allan, who Coronation Street devotees will recall from her soap role as TV star medium Crystal Webber.
A medium is defined as “a person who claims to be able to contact and speak to people who are dead, and to pass messages between them and people who are still alive. Without stretching the connection with Ashley’s soap role too far, Russell’s story serves as a medium for bored, enervated Liverpool housewife Shirley Bradshaw as she reconnects with her younger self, the Shirley Valentine of the title, wondering where she had gone, in a death of sorts.
“We’ve probably all felt a bit like Shirley recently,” says Stratton in his programme notes. “Stuck in our homes with a life we don’t want. It feels appropriate that we can join her, as she re-discovers who she is and sets off on an adventure that will change her life forever.”
Everything is brown at the start: the Seventies’ décor in the kitchen of Shirley’s semi-detached Liverpool house in Graham Kirk’s set design, matched by costume designer Christine Wall’s mood-board palette for Hope Allen’s skirt. Her marriage is brown too: she and husband Joe are attached yet detached, in a rut of routine and rotas.
Shirley is stuck in a world of domestic monotony at 42; her children are already grown up and no longer at home; Joe expects his set tea on the set table at the set time each day, on the dot of his arrival home from work.
If Shirley hasn’t yet been driven up the wall, she is certainly talking to it – isn’t she, wall? Today should be steak day, but Joe will just have to do with chips and egg, prepared in real time by Hope Allan’s Shirley in Act 1, Scene One.
Pouring herself a glass of white as the one perk-up of her day, Shirley pours out her heart to…us. Immediately this feels more intimate, more personal, than the 1989 film that starred Pauline Collins, Tom Conti and Alison Steadman in its expanded focus, but Russell’s stage version is all the better for everything being seen through Shirley’s eyes.
From slicing potatoes to frying the egg, Shirley chats away about her happier past and drab, flat-tyre present with Joe; her son’s cheeky Nativity Play exploits back in the day; and her sudden chance to escape to a Greek island for two weeks with best friend Jane, without telling Joe, because she knows exactly what he would say.
Confessional Shirley is engaging, amusing, frank company, fearless in self-expression in a way she has not been in her stymied day-to-day, no-holiday grind. Just as she brings herself back to life, so every character is brought to life by vocal dexterity and facial expression, and when applied with the chameleon skills and comedic timing of Hope Allan, this is Valentine’s day all over again as she emboldens herself to head for the sun.
Come Act Two, Kirk’s design swaps a backdrop of grey Liverpool postcards for sun-tanned Greek island ones, and brown wallpaper makes way for everything in signature Greek blue and white, right down to the beachside recliner.
In sun hat, sunglasses and floaty beach wear, Shirley is revived by the weather, the food and new company alike as she switches from conversing with a Liverpool wall to a Greek rock.
Russell, whose economical yet still rich script never wastes a word, now taps into tenderness to add to the comedy and drama, rather than echoing the pathos of ancient Greek plays. Instead of bitterness or regret, Shirley looks forward, to bright skies and a brighter future, responding to re-connecting with her Valentine heart.
Under Stratton’s light-touch, just-right direction, Hope Allan is a joy to behold, both fun and funny: spot-on with her accents and characterisations, uplifting in spirit, astutely paced and rhythmical in her storytelling, always aware of when and where to move.
Russell’s sharp, yet blunt Liverpool humour resonates anew. For all its period setting, the play’s truths hit home more than ever, four decades on, all the more so for the emotional honesty of writer and performer alike.
A glorious surprise awaited at the end: after all those disparate voices, Ashley Hope Allan turned out to be Scottish. Who knew!
Esk Valley Theatre’s Shirley Valentine can be seen at 7.30pm, Mondays to Saturdays, until August 28, complemented by 2.30pm matinees on August 19, 24 and 26. Tickets cost £16, concessions £15, on 01947 897587 or at eskvalleytheatre.co.uk.