Shirley Valentine, Willy Russell’s classic comedy about a downtrodden middle-aged housewife whose eyes are opened to the possibility of a different kind of life when she has a holiday in Greece, was first performed at the Liverpool Everyman a little over 30 years ago. It went on to take the West End and Broadway by storm, and was soon a hit film. For the screen version Pauline Collins as Shirley was joined by a cast that included Tom Conti, Alison Steadman and Bernard Hill, but the original play – reprised here in a production which also has the original director – was a one woman show.
This time Shirley is played by Jodie Prenger, who first caught the public’s attention when she won the role of Nancy in a West End production of Oliver! after competing for the part in a BBC TV series. She’s acquired plenty of stage experience since then, and it shows in a wonderfully engaging and accomplished performance, complete with a convincing Scouse accent. We first see her cooking egg and chips, almost literally slaving away over a hot stove as she waits for her husband to arrive home from work. Her life of domestic drudgery is immediately apparent as Prenger prepares the meal, all the while giving the kitchen wall (and us) a running commentary on the state of her marriage. She delivers Russell’s many one-liners (‘Marriage is like the Middle East – there’s no solution’) with aplomb, establishing a strong, warmhearted rapport with the audience from the off.
Prenger is also adept at bringing other characters in Shirley’s story to life, whether describing them or imitating their voices, mannerisms and physical movements. It’s easy to forget she’s the only one on stage as she summons up her stolid, domineering husband Joe, her sparky friend Jane and a host of others. She vividly captures Shirley’s mix of exhilaration and fear when Jane invites her to join her on a trip she’s booked to Greece. She plucks up the courage to go, and to mark the change of mood and location the uniform yellow of her Liverpool kitchen is replaced on stage by a vibrant blue backdrop. She meets Costas, a charming, considerate local man. Is this just a holiday romance, after which Shirley will return to the humdrum routine of her married life? Or will her reawakened appetite for passion and excitement demand something more?
Prenger’s performance is a real tour de force and as she recreates Shirley’s eventful emotional journey we’re with her all the way. After 30 years Willy Russell’s play has lost none of its power to move us, and still offers plenty of food for thought – and, of course, a lot of laughs.
**** Jodie Prenger excels in a revival that’s both moving and hilarious
Shirley Valentine continues at the Floral Pavilion, New Brighton until Saturday 23 September 2017.