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Shirley Valentine | Newmarket Stage Company

Sipping riesling as she prepares her husband’s dinner of egg and chips, Shirley Bradshaw (nee Valentine) is a middle-aged Liverpool housewife who has lived her entire life within the confines of the safe and the familiar.

But when her friend Jane buys her a ticket to Greece for some sun, sand and squid, Shirley is torn. Should she abandon Joe (her hardworking husband who will stutter in horror at a change in menu when she serves him an alternative from the Thursday night special) and her childish adult daughter Milandra (who demands Horlicks with extra sugar whenever she decides to come home), and indeed, everyone around her? Could she make a choice to be who she once was before she donned the habit of a wife and mother?

The two hour production traces Shirley’s thought process as she reflects, interrogates and waxes lyrical on the journey to possibly reclaiming her past (or even a version of her former self) as the possibility of venturing into new territory becomes a reality.

Insights garnered over the years are shared willingly with the audience as she explains saying “I love you” to someone often gives you an excuse to behave in a manner less than satisfactory – and although she may have arrived late at the island of Clitoris and its earthly delights, her woman’s instinct warned her that the striations on a woman’s hips (whether indeed battle scars or badges of courage) are often included in the lovemaking hogwash that is benevolently spewed at those deemed innocent and vulnerable.

But Shirley knows all that.  She’s incredibly self-aware even if she teeters on the imaginary precipice of her childhood roof every time she is faced with the option of stepping out beyond the wall, and after three months of secret packing and arranging her very own passport she succeeds in packing her bags and steps out.

And there alone is quite an achievement and a story in itself. Following interval we find Shirley has befriended a rather familiar form: a rock to whom she proceeds to narrate the adventures of the past few days, regaling her audience with accounts of Costa the Greek and trying couples from Manchester who are struggling with the heat, food and everything else they supposedly came to enjoy.

Here on the unknown island in Greece, Shirley has no earth-shattering epiphanies, no religious awakening (she does have great sex) but more importantly she realizes that her dreams are not where she thought they would be waiting. And in the end she must face a second decision: should she return home to her husband or stay and indulge the new found freedom that is offered?

Nancy Schroder – directed by John Callen – gives an excellent performance in this solo-piece, playing over 27 different characters, moving seamlessly between Gillian (her high-class hooker friend from high school) who speaks with pronounced traces of her former elocution lessons, to her young son Brian (and his short-lived acting career as he improvised in the school’s nativity play) and then to her Greek lover, whom she names with imperialistic affection: Christopher Columbus.

Her ability to stay present and engaged with each of characters is laudatory and if accents occasionally meander and a few false starts are made, these are easily forgivable given the charisma and energy with which she delivers.

Calico cloth hung from the roof forms the backdrop to the domestics of the first act only to drop to form the sculpted landscape of Greece against the backdrop of an orange sun dipping into the sea. Much care and attention has clearly been put into the set design (by Michael Knapp and Fred Alder) and despite a few inconsistencies the effort to create a congenial atmosphere with supper in the process of being cooked is very successful.

Perhaps not so much however, are the rather awkward attempts to update the production from its 1986 original to a modern version with topical references – which is worrying because have the Kardashians really permeated people’s consciousness to that extent that they’re considered a signifier of how up-to-date we are?

The script itself is a tad too long and veers on the anecdotal with more than necessary dollops of nostalgia. While endearing, it can appear to be a case of listening to a series of reminisces over more than a few cuppas with a few nuggets of wisdom hidden along the way. Again, what saves it from being a serving of platitudes is the richness of the characters and Schroder’s commitment to each and every one of the different individuals who have populated her world.

Despite its minor flaws, this is a show definitely worth seeing, irrespective of age and whether you catch all the musical references or not.

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