REVIEW: Esk Valley Theatre in Shirley Valentine, Robinson Institute, Glaisdale, near Whitby, until August 28 ****

Greece is the word: Ashley Hope Allen’s Shirley Bradshaw with her holiday tickets. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

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.

Here comes the sun: Hope Ashley Allan’s Shirley feeling so at home with the Greek way of life in Esk Valley Theatre’s Shirley Valentine. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

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.

Coronation Street star Ashley Hope Allan to play Shirley Valentine for Esk Valley Theatre

Exit-the-kitchen-sink drama: Ashley Hope Allan as Shirley Valentine in Esk Valley Theatre’s Shirley Valentine. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

ESK Valley Theatre complete a hattrick of Willy Russell plays with Shirley Valentine at the Robinson Institute, Glaisdale, near Whitby, from Thursday to August 28.

In Russell’s one-woman show, Coronation Street star Ashley Hope Allan plays middle-aged, bored Liverpool housewife Shirley in a story of self-discovery as she takes off to Greece with a friend, who promptly abandons her for a holiday romance. Left alone, Shirley meets charming taverna owner Costas.

After a gap year brought on by the Covid lockdown, Esk Valley Theatre, a professional theatre company rooted in the North York Moors National Park, return with Russell’s 1986 play, the winner of two Olivier Awards and a Tony before its conversion into Lewis Gilbert’s 1989 film starring Pauline Collins and Tom Conti.

Ashley Hope Allan in rehearsals for Esk Valley Theatre’s August production of Shirley Valentine. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Director Mark Stratton says: “Shirley Valentine is the third Willy Russell play we’ve produced after Educating Rita, with Amy Spencer as Rita and Ian Crowe as Frank in August 2016, and One For The Road, with Laura Bonnah, David Smith, Andrew Cryer and Joanne Heywood, in our tenth anniversary show in August 2014.

“It’s always a joy to direct his work. He has an economy of style and precision in his writing that always hits home and his ability to capture the wit and humour of Liverpudlians is second to none.”

Actor Ashley Hope Allan played the television medium Crystal Webber in Coronation Street, having appeared earlier in Emmerdale, The Crown and Nuzzle And Scratch.

Esk Valley Theatre’s Ian Crowe as Frank and Amy Spencer as Rita in Willy Russell’s Educating Rita in 2016. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Among her stage credits are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and As You Like It for the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival and Sally Bowles in Cabaret.

Director Stratton is joined in the production team by producer Sheila Carter, designer and lighting designer Graham Kirk and costume designer Christine Wall.

Mark, who set up Esk Valley Theatre with Sheila in 2005, has had a varied career in theatres across Britain, as well as appearing in numerous television shows and films, most notably with Anthony Hopkins in Across The Lake, as a guest detective opposite Felicity Kendall and Pam Ferris in Rosemary & Thyme and as an American professor opposite Vidya Balan in the Bollywood movie Shakuntala Devi, released in July 2020. 

The Esk Valley Theatre cast and production team for Willy Russell’s One For The Road in 2014

Mark has performed in more than 20 pantomimes and will add Widow Twankey in Aladdin at Cast, Doncaster, to that list this winter.

Sheila has choreographed for many of Britain’s leading theatre companies, enjoying a long association with Alan Ayckbourn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, where she has worked on many of his premieres.

She choreographed By Jeeves, the Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that ran in London, played at several theatres in the United States and ended up on Broadway.

Valentine’s day: Ashley Hope Allen in an early scene in Esk Valley Theatre’s production of Shirley Valentine, in rehearsal for the Robinson Institute run in Glaisdale. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

She directed and choreographed Where Is Peter Rabbit? in its two London runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket and has choreographed for film and TV too, including Franco Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre in 1996.

Esk Valley Theatre’s Shirley Valentine can be seen at 7.30pm, Mondays to Saturdays, from August 5 to 28, complemented by 2.30pm matinees on August 7, 12, 14, 17, 19, 24, and 26. A post-show talkback will be held on August 18. 

Tickets cost £16, concessions £15, on 01947 897587 or at eskvalleytheatre.co.uk.