a comedy by Willy Russell
A middle-aged woman makes her bid for freedom
„Shirley Valentine“ at Vienna’s English Theatre. Cally Lawrence turns in a magnificent solo.
How come that a seemingly down-to-earth woman ends up talking to the sunny-yellow wall in her plain, clean kitchen? A touch of midlife crisis? Shirley Bradshaw is 46, the children are grown-up already, no longer at home; her husband, Joe, likes things „just the way they are“. Pure monotony! They’ve run out of things to say to one another (…).
Bit by bit the truth emerges: Mrs Bradshaw would rather be Shirley Valentine, the title of Willy Russell’s British comedy (1986) and of the prize-winning film (1989), directed by Lewis Gilbert.
This, we learn, was Shirley’s maiden name. Back then she had been a bright-minded girl with an adventurous spirit, but became a housewife and mother all too young. Now Shirley is beset by the feeling that life has passed her by completely, she feels neglected and put upon. And then, suddenly she has her chance: her girl-friend – a feminist – is just off to Greece for a two-week holiday and wants to take Mrs Bradshaw with her; she already has the two tickets. But how is Shirley to tell her husband? The very thought of a confrontation arouses her old broad Liverpool accent. Can she risk a breakout from the daily routine like this? The call of adventure is too strong for her to resist.
The taverna, the sea and Costas.
Cally Lawrence, a well known figure in British TV series, turns in a magnificent solo in Adrienne Ferguson’s staging which was premiered at Vienna’s English Theatre on Tuesday, During the course of two hours she develops a character with whom we can easily empathise: three weeks before her departure for Greece, we encounter a woman surviving her humdrum life by sheer mother-wit. By the time departure day comes, she is strung-up and her jibes have become sharper. By the end, sitting in front of a taverna, enjoying wine, sunshine and the sea, not to mention the company of Costas – himself ever in search of adventure – Shirley will have well and truly rediscovered her real self. The other English characters – her girl-friend, the daughter with her husband – seem uptight and a touch foolish by comparison as Shirley tells us of them with unsparing honesty. Life has well and truly re-embraced her. Warm-hearted applause.
The play opens with English pop music, only to end with Alexis Sorbas. Shirley Bradshaw, a 46-year old housewife, chats with the kitchen wall about her life and her concerns; on it hangs a calendar showing June 1987. The children have left home, her husband, Joe, hardly talks to her any more and expects nothing more than his dinner on the table on the dot. The sheer love of life and spirit of adventure that were such a feature of Shirley Valentine are aroused again when her feminist friend, Jane, invites her to join her on holiday in Greece. Leaving her husband behind, she heads down south to a new life and a future that remains open at the end.
The hit play which was filmed in 1989 opens in Liverpool; it relies entirely on having a good soloist who can carry the entire evening with her monologues. At V.E.T., Cally Lawrence, directed by Adrienne Ferguson, proves to be the perfect one-person entertainer; her Liverpool accent, her impressive use of gesture and expression are remarkable. You will find hardly a dry eye in the audience when she renders other people – her teacher, her neighbour, her daughter or her new Greek lover, or when she rails against Sigmund Freud’s sexual teaching or tells us of her young son’s appearance in the Nativity Play.
Lothar Hüttling’s appropriate set, uses the Greek national colours, blue and white: they are hinted at in Shirley’s kitchen, only to dominate in the final set. The premiere ended with plentiful applause and loud bravos for Cally Lawrence.
Vienna’s English Theatre puts on a charming and wistful comedy, Shirley Valentine
There must be something about actors talking to inanimate objects that can make an audience laugh (remember Clint Eastwood berating an empty chair during the 2012 Republican National Convention?). In British playwright Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine, the heroine talks to a rock. Unfortunately, it’s a Greek rock, so it can’t understand her.
To be clear, every bit of Shirley Valentine is meant to entertain. Much like an Eastwoodian maverick, Russell ventured into the lawless terrain of the one-woman show, a new genre in 1986, when he created his two-hour monologue that has become a staple of the West End and marked Russell’s debut on Broadway.
It was easy to see why on the second night of its current run at Vienna’s English Theatre. The audience of native and non-native speakers was in stitches, clearly having a wonderful time.
The comedy tells the story of Shirley Bradshaw (formally Valentine), a middle-aged Liverpudlian housewife, who faces a midlife crisis when her best friend invites her on a getaway to Greece.
Shirley (a formidable Cally Lawrence), and her husband, Joe, are empty nesters, her role of nurturing mother no longer needed. Serving her family as a one-stop shop for all things domestic, she can no longer remember why she fell in love with Joe in the first place. After 20 plus years of marriage, Shirley begrudges the dreary routines, drunken arguments and sexual abstinence. Above all, Shirley regrets no longer daring to dream.
Greece, the cradle of Western civilization, looks like the perfect place to find a new sense of purpose, even if it means a country where they eat squid! Once at the beach, it is not so much a Promethean zest for knowledge that spurs Shirley on but a raw desire to feel alive.
Like its working-class heroine, the plot of Shirley Valentine may seem simple. But Russell took a risk in writing this play. The entire comedy hinges on the audience’s capacity to relate to the feeling of squandered opportunity. Of course, few people can say they have always made the most of every chance.
Lightening our remorse, Russell’s humor is primarily situational, and Lawrence shines brightest during impersonations of her friends and family. Director Adrienne Ferguson decidedly kept this play in the ‘80s: Shirley references the Concorde, phone boxes and André Previn. She even wears shoulder pads. But all of these somewhat nostalgic details don’t really matter because in the end, Shirley’s plight is as relevant today as it was in the days of Margaret Thatcher.
Holiday in three acts
Eventually, Shirley indulges in a fling with the owner of a local tavern, and when Joe pleads for her return to England, she rejects him. The play ends with Joe en route to Greece, while Shirley promises the audience she will never go back.
Thus, Russell’s comedy seems to suggest that the next time we nd ourselves lonely, desperate or lost, we should try talking to our lawnmower or washing machine. Or even a rock. We could get a good laugh out of it.
At Vienna’s English Theatre, Ferguson and Lawrence succeed in making a monodrama from the ‘80s a relevant, hip and entertaining theater experience. It is Russell’s wry humor that nudges us and urges us to reevaluate our lives. It also saves Shirley Valentine.