Shirley Valentine (Byre)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SHIRLEY VALENTINE at the Byre Theatre, St. Andrews, for The Scotsman, 27.7.15.
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4 stars ****

THE SHOW MUST go on, runs the oldest saying in show business. And it certainly rang through the beautiful Byre Theatre at St. Andrew last week, when the theatre’s first attempt since its long closure to stage an in-house professional summer show was almost scuppered by the sudden withdrawal of actress Angela Darcy, after a sad family bereavement.

Within 48 hours, though, the brave Irene Allen stepped into the breach; and on Friday night, with just two days’ rehearsal, and with script still in hand for the second and third acts of the play, she delivered such an intensely passionate and likeable performance of Willy Russell’s world-famous 1986 monologue Shirley Valentine, that at the end, the audience rose to give her a standing ovation.

Almost 30 years after its Liverpool premiere, there is, it has to be said, something almost unbeiievable about Russell’s account of a bright, dynamic woman who has somehow become such a taken-for-granted wife and mother – no job, no other identity – that she simply puts up with a bullying husband who barely gives her the time of day; a woman for whom the prospect of a two-week package holiday in Greece seems like a major act of rebellion.

Yet however distant in theory, in practice this image of a female life still seems to strike a huge chord with generations of women who find themselves infinitely relied on for the practicalities of domestic life, but often barely noticed as people; I’ve rarely heard a roar of empathy so strong as the one that swept across the Byre when Shirley – after a miserable trip to the shops – turns to the fridge and whips out her bottle of wine, so that she can have a consoling glass while she cooks the egg and chips.

For all its hasty assembly, Irene Allen’s performance – complete with decent Liverpool accent, and sensitively directed by Rita Henderson on a set by Gregor Donnelly that features big, rough projections of Shirley’s Liverpool streets – misses none of the key emotional nuances of the story. And if Allen’s deft and passionate handling of the play’s vital opening scene is any guide, then future audiences will have a rich, nostalgic, and yet still timely theatrical treat in store, once she has time to master the whole sweep of one of the landmark monologues of the last 50 years, and of a character whose very existence has been changing ordinary women’s lives, ever since she first appeared.

Byre Theatre, St. Andrews, untl 8 August.

ENDS ENDS

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