Review: Shirley Valentine, Duke of York’s Theatre

Sheridan Smith and Willy Russell prove a marriage made in heaven as she soars in Shirley Valentine in the West End

“I have allowed myself to lead this little life, when inside me there was so much more”

A moment of existential crisis hit me as I waited for Shirley Valentine to start, I clocked that I’m now older than Shirley herself – something that seems inconceivable to me as memories of Pauline Collins and Meera Syal flit around my head. But from the moment Sheridan Smith steps onto the stage, all other thoughts are banished as she effortlessly slips into the kind of winning performance that should see her head the Olivier nominations for next year, even as this year’s have only just been revealed.

Yes, Willy Russell’s 1986 play is dated in many ways, but even as a period piece, it speaks to the heart of how society – heck, theatre itself as well – treats so many middle-aged, working class women. We don’t get to see it at first, gags about the Milk Tray Man and the hopelessness of husbands are deployed a dime to a dozen, but Shirley is wracked by loneliness, a wife and mother whose identity has been so thoroughly subsumed by what she sees as her duties that she’s reduced to talking to a wall.

Smith is perfectly cast as the Liverpudlian housewife, so full of hilarious humanity even as she deals with the disappointments of what her life has become, the judgements that so many pass on her. As a surprising Greek odyssey comes to pass, her flourishing under the Aegean sun is a thing of fairytale wonder – too good to be true, sure, but isn’t that what fairytales are all about? A feelgood message like this surely never goes out of time, particularly given the state we’re in now.

Matthew Dunster’s production thus hits all the right notes. Paul Wills’ set and costume design slips brilliantly from ersatz 80s brightness to sun-dappled warmth, Lucy Carter’s intelligent lighting work aiding the transition beautifully. Whether it whets the appetite for taramasalata or home-cooked chips, this is a great welcome back for Shirley Valentine and the absolute gift to acting that is Sheridan Smith.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Photo: John Wilson
Shirley Valentine is booking at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 3rd June

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