Sharon Millerchip takes centre stage as Willy Russell’s unlikely heroine
Willy Russell is one of England’s great champions of working class stories. Through plays like Educating Rita and his smash hit West End musical Blood Brothers, Russell has centred the characters that have been largely ignored by British theatre – certainly until the kitchen sink drama boom of the 1950s and ’60s – and dug deep into their internal lives.
Nowhere has he done this with such sensitivity, compassion and insight as his 1986 one-woman play Shirley Valentine, which went on to become an Oscar nominated film. It’s remained popular thanks to the wit and warmth of its protagonist: a dissatisfied and downtrodden Liverpudlian housewife who takes a radical step to reclaim her life by going on a holiday to Greece. It’s a small story in many senses – all told through monologue – but for Shirley the stakes are enormous. For an audience, it’s impossible to not invest in this woman who could very easily be crushed by the weight of her own life, but chooses instead to do some heavy lifting. She says outright that she doesn’t identify as a feminist – and has plenty of judgement reserved for women who do – but it’s not difficult to read her actions as such when she tries to untether herself from both a class and patriarchal structure that’s dimmed her glow.
In saying that, there’s something about Russell’s play that now feels a touch too blunt, and this faithful and resonant production, starring Sharon Millerchip and directed by Mark Kilmurry, can’t quite overcome how dated the material feels. Shirley is her own narrator and commentator, framing her own emancipation in ways that three decades after the play’s premiere feel a little clichéd. When Shirley shifts from frankly recounting her escapades to talking about the beauty of her scars and wounds – and the fact that although she won’t be in the history books she’s here and alive – it feels a little gauche and undoes a lot of the character work.
The play’s bluntness isn’t just a result of its age – it may also be because it was made for audiences who mightn’t be regular theatregoers (it premiered at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre and has toured to regional venues everywhere). But I still imagine if Russell were writing this play today he might put a little more trust in his audience to draw their own inferences about this extraordinary character.
Millerchip is a superb actor and builds a consistent character in her first performance in years (she’s been working as resident director on major musicals). She develops a decent rapport with the audience over the play’s two hours and is as comfortable with the character’s tragedy as her lightness and seemingly endless wit. When she says there’s a lot of wasted life lurking inside of her, you truly believe there’s an untapped energy. But at the same time, it can be difficult to see Millerchip as a woman who has let her life go to waste; she just seems far too together. In fact, Millerchip resisted Kilmurry’s invitations to play the role for five years, believing it wasn’t a perfect fit for her. Although it’s a generally successful performance, she wasn’t wrong.
Even with these bumps on Shirley’s path to self realisation, little gets in the way of the play’s overwhelmingly uplifting spirit. Some of its shine may have worn off, but it’s still a kind of theatrical comfort food with more substance than you first suspect.