Known for his strong female characters, from Educating Rita to Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers, Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine stands head and shoulders above his other work as an in depth exploration of what it was really like to be a woman in the 1980s. Transporting the audience from her kitchen in Liverpool to a beautiful beach in Corfu, 42 year old Shirley Bradshaw’s life is thrown out of balance by an unexpected holiday, causing her to question the mundane, limiting life she finds herself leading.
Shirley Valentine is a real one woman show. Virtually a monologue, Russell’s script gets right inside the psyche of his eponymous heroine. Her continuous flow of friendly chatter begins as a seemingly innocuous series of observations about wine, her son, bohemian culture, her husband’s routine. Slowly, these threads of information form a tightly woven web which binds Shirley to a life she can no longer bear. Shirley’s comic quirks – including talking to “Wall” as though it is her closest confidante – are endearing and outrageous but bely an almost manic tendency. Her evident sense of adventure is bursting at the seams of this suburban kitchen.
Jodie Prenger gives an astonishing performance in the title role. Despite the considerable demands of maintaining an audience’s attention for almost 2 hours, she rises to the challenge and surpasses all expectations. She produces a never-ending stream of wicked impressions, anecdotes brought to life by exaggerated mime and indignant, impassioned speeches about the impossible position in which she finds herself. Her comic timing is impeccable, surveying the audience with a an impish grin before dropping the bombshell: “I still haven’t told him!”
Prenger’s Shirley is a passionate, strong-willed role model that transcends generations – a woman emboldened by female friendship to take a leap, thus creating a new life for herself. However, Prenger is also incredibly relatable, guiding us through this mammoth monologue as though we are old friends, catching up over a cup of tea. Her easy-going, natural approach tugs at the heart-strings; she represents countless women who have fallen out of love with themselves.
Shirley Valentine restores a ray of sunshine to a troubled present. It reminds us to take risks, speak our minds and value ourselves , even when times are tough. Jodie Prenger’s extraordinary performance brings Shirley Valentine gloriously to life, moving the audience to tears of joy and sorrow. Although first performed in 1986, Russell’s iconic one woman show could have been written yesterday.
Shirley Valentine is at New Alexandra Theatre until Saturday 11 March, and tickets are available here.