This theatre review is about the play Shirley Valentine currently at the Salisbury Playhouse.
25th February – 7th March 2020
Having seen the film years ago, I was looking for some light entertainment, something uplifting and an easy watch. I wasn’t aware that the whole play is centred around the main character because a solo performance is never easy and yet, this is one performance that just flowed almost effortlessly. I was surprised that it was so gripping and with emotional highs and lows.
But let’s start at the beginning. There was an air of anticipation while waiting for the curtain to go up. The theatre was full for the matinee performance and, there appeared to be a mixture of ages.
As the curtain rose, I took a few moments to study the set. As my daughter is in theatre, I like to think about the set, and the performances and how the plays are written. I have seen some complicated sets but this was neat and fairly basic revealing a cross section of the kitchen. We start off by watching Shirley cooking dinner for her husband, he has not yet arrived and she is talking to herself, well, actually, she is talking to the wall. You get the feeling that this is a common occurrence and is how she pours out her deepest feelings. You understand that she cannot talk to her husband in the same way anymore.
Shirley Valentine was played by Clare Sweeney who effortlessly captivated the audience. She portrays a woman, past her best and where the marriage has lost its spark. Her children are grown up and gone and she is in her 40’s. Life isn’t bad, but we can tell she is lonely. Although the narration is upbeat, there are glimmers of sadness. Sweeney dips in and out of nostalgia, her mood is up and down. We learn that she has lost sight of the girl she once was. The rebel, the fun girl, the girl who would do it all. This is a sad acknowledgement. Now, Shirley is a shadow of her former self. She is scared to do anything – even go on a free holiday with her best friend.
The ticket is looked at longingly and often. But she knows she cannot go. It’s a dream, yet, the audience can see that the ticket represents freedom. Will she go or won’t she?
Sweeney owned the stage. She had the audience laughing immediately. Comedy timing, her fabulous accent and exaggerated facial expressions swept the audience up in a compelling performance. Sweeney made the character 3-dimensional. She brought her to life. You believed in this portrayal and she revealed the various aspects of the character layer by layer. There were elements that you instantly recognised in yourself.
This is a play that would appeal to all. It is genuinely funny and sad and inspiring. It crosses the expanse of time and doesn’t try to be too clever.
The play was cleverly written. As a writer, I know only too well that large passages of dialogue can become stale quite quickly. Yet, Sweeney made it look easy. The first half flew by. A short interval and we were back. The narration continued in the same seamless way in the second act where a new set was revealed.
Instantly, we were transported to a beautiful Greek setting. The white-washed walls of the Taverna with its glorious powder blue shutters and a table and parasol where Shirley has her drinks alone. The setting is simplistic. The audience marvel at the change in Shirley Valentine, no longer sad or lost, she oozes confidence. She is glamorous, but still, so likeable. As she lays her towel on a large rock, she starts to talk to it. The wall may be gone but the conversation continues.
But as always, there is a twist.
This is a stunning performance by Clare Sweeney and the standing ovation says it all. It is beautifully written and produced. It reveals a slice of life and a glimpse as to what can happen if you do not hold on to your true self. Perhaps, a lesson for us all.
If you want a story about life, love and one that doesn’t take itself too seriously, go and see it. It is on at the Salisbury Playhouse until the 7th March. You won’t be disappointed.
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