Willy Russell’s classic 1986 monologue ‘Shirley Valentine’ should feel dated, 37 years on. Played by Sheridan Smith in its first London revival in an age, its eponymous heroine is a Liverpudlian housewife whose children have grown up and left home, and who now largely lives to swig white wine – a drink she has only just discovered – talk to the wall and have her unseen husband Joe’s dinner ready for him the precise moment he gets home. She fully admits to being unhappy here, or at least, desperately wishes for more than Joe can possibly offer her. But she’s too old to start over. As she reminds us, repeatedly, she is… 42.
Not wanting to play the blinkered middle-class naif here, but I think it’s reasonable to say that mandatory housewifery, default early twenties parenthood, and the assumption that life ends at 40 are all things that have fallen by the wayside in the last few decades of British society. It’s obviously not as simple as that. But times have changed.
Surprisingly, though, I found that the aspects of Shirley’s situation that now feel more extreme and alien are what give Matthew Dunster’s revival a real edge. There’s something almost Beckettian about her ritual of tending to Joe’s rigidly unchanging needs; her inability to leave their house in any meaningful form certainly has a dark absurdity; Paul Wills’s vaguely Rachel Whitread-esque set speaks of her being trapped inside a machine for living.
I’m not saying Russell didn’t intend to make this point originally. But there’s clearly an earthier note to the foreground in Shirley’s confessional chatter and lairy anecdotes, as she dwells on her ‘feminist’ mate Jane’s recent offer of a two-week girls’ holiday to Greece: a dream to Shirley, but beyond the pale as far as Joe is concerned.
What really makes this revival work, however, is Sheridan Smith. It’s easy to forget what a stupendous actress she is, but wow: she channels both the darkness and the light in Shirley with incredible deftness. It’s important we feel for her, and see that she’s not been dealt the best hand in life – notably by the cruel headmistress who crushed her aspirations. But it’s also important we don’t see her as a victim, as pathetic. Smith’s Shirley has a sense of power, a mischief in her eyes as she describes her failure to break away from Joe. She recognises it’s a bad situation; you sense she could end it quite easily, if only she saw the point. She’s certainly not in denial. But she sees him as an absurd, vulnerable child to be tended to rather than a bully to be feared. Tending to him gives her purpose, and she’s been conditioned to believe that it‘s the only purpose she has now, no point in leaving.
So in the first act, at least – no spoilers, eh? – she stays home and puts on a show for us, a bright, raucous narration through her life that’s equal parts funny and sad, but delivered without self-pity, and underpinned by the sense that she is in fact using the opportunity to psyche herself up to take Jane up on her offer.
Although Russell’s greatest success came in the ’90s with the revival of ‘Blood Brothers’, ‘Shirley Valentine’ was effectively his last major new work: after a prolific couple of decades on stage and screen he basically just stopped writing stuff when he hit 40. Maybe he felt over the hill! It’s a shame to think what else could have come, but also what a play to go out on. Yes, it’s a big-hearted celebration of working-class potential and all that stuff people associate with Russell. But it’s also a canny and in some ways chilling look at the systematisation of society, and our natural propensity to see ourselves as cogs in a machine. And this is an expert revival, blessed with a true star performance, alive to every aspect of ‘Shirley Valentine’, from its big heart to its troubled soul.