As theatres begin to tentatively reopen for live performances, there has been much discussion within the theatre community about the types of shows being programmed for many venues’ reopening seasons. The understandable anxiety around ticket sales and how to best guarantee optimum audience attendance has been thick in the air, and for many, there has been a return to classic, tried and tested theatre favourites. So the decision by the Alma Tavern Theatre to reopen their doors with Willy Russell’s iconic one-hander, Shirley Valentine, seemed a very shrewd and savvy choice. While other venues have chosen big hitters like Shakespeare for their post-lockdown programmes – which will always have its guaranteed and ardent following of theatre goers – it was somewhat refreshing to see a show that focuses its narrative lens upon a working class, middle aged woman. This focus, coupled with the play turning thirty five this year, offered a theatrical bouquet as enticing as Shirley’s own glass of wine.
Directed by Adam Elms with Anna Friend performing as the titular heroine, Schoolhouse Productions stays true to Russell’s original text, keeping it placed in 1980s Liverpool. The kitchen set is deceptively simple – which even included a working hob upon which Shirley cooks a real egg and chips supper from scratch – with details such as contemporary table cloths and place mats situating Shirley’s humble domicile beautifully within the period. Friend’s performance exudes the warmth and humour of Russell’s text, and Friend does a brilliant job of embodying Shirley; she is every bit the endearing friend with her quips and amusing anecdotes, and when the depth of her loneliness is brought to light, your heart truly aches for this character. It is so difficult for an actor to shoulder the mantel of a role that has been made famous by a particular performer – for many of us, Pauline Collins just is Shirley Valentine – but Anna Friend brings her own flavour to the character, portraying this complex woman with the skilled ease of a seasoned performer.
While certain aspects of the script are rather dated in their attitudes – Shirley’s animosity towards feminism is somewhat jarring for a 2021 audience, though many still share in Shirley’s misconceptions – there is still so much about this play that speaks to life in Britain today. The portrayal of loneliness, isolation and loss of self identity is particularly resonant in our present COVID world, and with studies having shown that many heterosexual women in relationships over lockdown returned to the gendered roles of the classic 1950s housewife, Shirley’s frustration at her family life is all the more impactful. We are still living in a society that upholds many of the misogynistic and gendered bigotries that were present in 1986, when the play was first premiered at the Everyman in Liverpool, and it is fascinating to see where we have and have not changed as a society in those interim thirty five years. Schoolhouse Productions brings these tricky, multi-layered cultural dialogues to life with this excellent revival of Shirley Valentine, and as theatre reopening productions go, this is a highly accomplished piece of theatre.