Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2005
Shirley Valentine Bradshaw, age 46, is a chatty soul. She talks to walls and rocks and mostly to you, the audience member, who happen to be privy to her innermost thoughts in this one-woman play by Willy Russell. In the course of two hours you will learn much about Shirley and her life before and during her marriage to Joe Bradshaw, with whom she has raised a son Brian and a daughter Millandra.
The show covers about two months of Shirley’s life, and takes her from her middle-class kitchen in a two-family house in Manchester, England, where she fries up egg ‘n’ chip for Joe, to the shores of Greece, where she waits table at a taverna. Her decision to accompany her divorced friend Jane to Greece, a decision she doesn’t bother to tell Joe about, and her experiences abroad, change her life and help turn her from hum-drum and disgruntled Shirley Bradsahw back into Shirley Valentine, the exuberant young woman she once was.
Written by Liverpuddlian Willy Russell, author of Educating Rita and Blood Brothers, Shirley Valentine opened in the West End in 1988 and had a six month run on Broadway the following year, where it was nominated for the Tony for Best Play and won the Tony for Best Actress in a Play for Pauline Collins. Collins also played Shirley in the film version, released in 1989.
Marci Bing tackles the title role in the production currently on the boards at the Theater Barn, and she does it nicely. She is petite and pretty and presents Shirley with just enough of a broad lower-middle class British accent to be believable, without being incomprehensible or embarrassing.
There are many laughs in the show, but they are gentle ones. I wonder if perhaps this play, which deals with such once shockingly fashionable topics as women’s orgasms, wasn’t much more topical and exciting 17 years ago. I have only hazy memories of popular culture that year since I gave birth to my second son in 1988, but can it really be such a short time ago that we would have been both surprised and entertained by a middle-aged married woman discussing her sexual and social frustrations? Surely middle-aged married women have been doing that for millennia (except during the 1950’s in America).
Also, I was surprised that, as a middle-aged married woman and mother of two myself, that I didn’t feel more simpatico with Shirley. Shouldn’t I have been jumping up and shouting “You tell ’em, sister!” at all the jazzy jabs at insanity provoking antics of husbands and children? I wasn’t. And I don’t think there is such a broad cultural divide between Britain and America that that could be the cause.
Bing was pert and competent, and Russell (who I understand has been persuaded to play Shirley on occasion) obviously knows and loves this character well, but the whole thing left me cold. Maybe Bing was too pert and competent for me to accept as a woman who would allow herself to be trapped in such a rut, or maybe the set was too cheerful and clean. It didn’t look like such a bad place to be. And Bing was so nicely dressed. I think she should have looked a little more Alice Kramden and a little less Mary Richards.
Abe Phelps is responsible for the bright and cheerful kitchen set, which features a working sink, stove, and fridge. Bing actually peels, chops and fries two potatoes in a deep-fat fryer, fills the kettle and boils water for tea, and fries up two eggs in a saucepan on the stove during the course of the first scene. You can hear and smell the food cooking and it is very distracting. I was in constant fear that Bing would burn herself or set the theatre on fire – she didn’t, at least not on opening night. I am sure that Bing and director Phil Rice have it all timed to the nanosecond and that I had nothing to fear, but I think it is human nature to worry about such things, especially since they are so seldom performed live on stage. There is a reason for that – one is safety and the other is the distraction they pose.
After intermission, a white curtain is pulled across the kitchen set and the sandy linoleum of the kitchen floor becomes the white sands of Greece.
I think we have all contemplated running away from the routine of our daily lives, but I think we all know that it will be nothing like what we dream and hope it will be. We know that we will just sink in to a new routine and that life in some earthly paradise can be just as confining and frustrating as where we are now. Shirley doesn’t find what she thinks she will in Greece, but she does find herself. That in itself makes Shirley Valentine a satisfying theatrical event.
The Theater Barn has dedicated this show to the memory of local actress Amelia Adams, who died of cancer earlier this year. Like Shirley, Amy was in her forties, married, and the mother of two, which made her death untimely and tragic. I wondered if this was a role she had ever played or wanted to play. I would imagine so. What a nice tribute.
Shirley Valentine runs through October 9 at The Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. There are some sexual references that make this a inappropriate for young children, and I think teens might be bored. This is really a show for grown-ups. Even though is about a woman and has quite a feminist slant, it was written by a man, so both sexes can enjoy it safely. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005