“Dreams are not often where you expect them to be”
Do two plays make a season? Regardless, the Menier Chocolate Factory have quite a coup in presenting the first London revivals of both Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita, playing in rep for six weeks as part of their Willy Russell season. For Shirley Valentine, Meera Syal takes the title role in this one-hander with aplomb and, in what will surely dominate every review, live onstage making and cooking of chips!
Shirley Valentine is an ordinary Liverpudlian housewife. As she prepares chips and egg for her ungrateful husband, she muses on her life, talking to the wall about such subjects as the state of her marriage, her grown-up children, her past and the ambitions she harboured as a younger woman. These ruminations have been sparked by an intriguing offer she has received from a girlfriend to go with her on holiday to Greece in search of romance and adventure.
It’s all extremely impressive stuff. Syal’s acting is superb, creating a whole world of characters with a range of voices, but crucially locating the gentle heart of Shirley, filled with an aching longing for something more than just wife and mother. Impressively, given it was written (and assumably set) in 1988, it doesn’t feel dated, Willy Russell’s writing remains funny and because it is so squarely focused on human relationships, it really does feel timeless. And despite being initially firmly located in Liverpool (the recently featured Adelphi hotel is mentioned), it is sufficiently universal for this not to be an issue.
The attention to detail in the dressing of the set is an absolute treat. Being so close as you are in the new seats on the side at the Menier, very little escapes you and I was delighted to see, among other things, malt loaf in the bread bin, coconut macaroons in the cupboard and old-school glass bottles of coke in the fridge. Combined with the wonder of the chip-making, it’s a miracle I paid any attention to the acting! Without giving too much away, the set changes in the interval but becomes no less effective in reflecting the mood of the play. Credit must go to Ms Syal who adlibbed brilliantly when a bit of the stage cracked alarmingly as she stepped on it, she proved herself a real professional and a master of working an audience in allowing us our laughter and then pulling us straight back in with a killer line of great emotion.
If one must be critical, then I have to admit that I struggled to buy Meera Syal as a working-class housewife in the first act: she just looks too beautiful and well, middle class! I thought perhaps more could have been done to make her look more downtrodden, as with Mel C in Blood Brothers. And her Scouse accent wavered somewhat down the M6 to Birmingham on occasion, but understandable given this was her second show and the number of other voices employed throughout the show.
This production of Shirley Valentine comes highly recommended from me: it feels fresh and in no way dated, it’s both sharply funny and extremely moving in its portrayal of a woman finally fulfilling a lifetime of dreams and pursuing her own ambitions and happiness and Meera Syal’s fine performance ensures that we really do care what happens. Plus, she makes chips onstage, what more do you want!