Is Willy still wily? Shirley Valentine at the Trafalgar Studios

Meera Syal

On target audiences and why we should be careful about what we describe as ‘timeless’

I went along to Shirley Valentine thinking it was a musical, just because it’s by Willy Russell and it sounded like one. It’s not. Instead, it’s actually a surprisingly odd two hour monologue about a forty-something woman rediscovering her identity after several years spent cooking chips and egg for her husband.

I’ve spent a lot of time lamabasting superficial theatre reviews recently, so I don’t intend to detail the ins and outs of Meera Syal’s performance here. Suffice to say she gives a very accomplished and brilliantly versatile rendition of Shirley Valentine and, on the occasion I saw the show, managed to sail through some unexpected prop mishaps with real aplomb.

What interests (or, rather, bothers) me about this play is who and what it’s aiming at. No doubt when it was written in 1986 it was seen as a radical portrayal of a middle-aged woman’s sexual rediscovery, but in 2010 Shirley Valentine does seem (to me at least) to be something of a period piece.

The first half is watchable, but a little wearying: Shirley, a Liverpudlian housewife, prepares her husband’s dinner to coincide with his return from work. We see her flit around the kitchen, complain a about the predictability of her life, and bemoan that the wall is her only real companion. The jokes are by and large still understandable (one or two of the ’80s quips left me behind) but seemed to me slightly hackneyed or obvious.

The second half sees Shirley somewhat uncharacteristically take off on a holiday to Greece. A greater amount of multi-roling is incorporated, and Shirley’s sexual frankness makes her seem much more of a modern woman. Here the pace picks up and the story becomes more engrossing. It’s good drama, but it’s good drama for a very particular kind of audience.

During the Whatsonstage.com post-show question and answer session, discussion touched on the relevance of the play to today’s audience. In a room full of les personnes du troisieme age, many of whom would have been Shirley’s age when the film was released, Russell’s observational accuracy no doubt still had a ring of truth. Indeed the play includes many moments of incisive social analysis, with the idea of ‘unused life’ being a particularly powerful example. However, I really couldn’t bring myself to concur with Meera Syal’s apparently honest comment that ‘the thing about this play is that it just doesn’t date’. Unless your world view stagnated some time during the mid 1980s, the belief that women are as dependent on their husbands now as they were in decades gone by is just a little bit far fetched.

This is the classic Catch 22 problem with commercial theatre: the only people who can afford West End ticket prices are middle aged, so the programming of West End theatres caters for the middle aged. And as the programming of West End theatres targets the middle aged, so they are able to charge prices that (generally speaking) only the middle aged can afford. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Meera Syal’s performance of Shirley Valentine, but, as what I’ve just written shows, I did find myself spending the show’s duration more thinking about why it was necessary for it to be revived than being immersed enough in its story to have any real emotional response.

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