Review by Daz Gale
Something special is being cooked up at the Duke Of York’s Theatre and it’s not just Chips and Egg. Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine returns to the West End in a new production with Sheridan Smith taking on the iconic character in a welcome return to the stage, following her astonishing performance in Funny Girl. With such a well loved story starring such an acclaimed actress, expectations were high around this production. Would it be able to resonate with audiences in 2023 or would it be the equivalent of talking to a wall?
First seen on stage in Liverpool in 1986, Shirley Valentine has enjoyed multiple outings in the decades since including multiple West End runs as well as the 1989 film adaptation (which anyone you mention this show to will talk about immediately). It was last seen in the UK in 2017 as part of a UK tour. For this latest production, the stars aligned with the realisation Sheridan Smith would be the same age as Shirley in the play this year in a case of right person at the right time.
Shirley Valentine tells the story of a housewife who has become so disillusioned with her life, she faces a life where she only has the wall in her kitchen for company most of the time. As she fights to rediscover who she is and find what has been lost, we see her struggle to make the Shirley Valentine of her past and the new Shirley Bradshaw of her adult life co-exist to form a new Shirley for the future where she can hopefully live out her dream life.
With no other characters in the stage production, it is left to Shirley Valentine to narrate us through her situation and her feelings, with only the odd inanimate object to talk to (though at times she directs her attention directly to the audience). Through several scenes across two non stop acts, she barely gets a chance to pause for breath as she makes us familiar with the goings on in her life, the crossroads she is at now and the dilemma she faces – all while cooking supper for her husband, pouring herself a glass of wine (or several) and taking the bins out.
The art of storytelling here is as good as it gets. The ability to paint a picture while the action doesn’t move from her kitchen in act 1 (and *spoiler alert* a different setting in act 2). Willy Russell’s writing really is sensational and Shirley Valentine sees him at his best. The deceptively humorous dialogue proves itself to have far more depth in this multifaceted writing full of heart and emotion. It can spring up out of nowhere midway through one of Shirley’s stories – mere moments after laughing, there is a real poignancy as her words resonate and you really feel for her and her situation. There is an issue of relatability with this show being able to strike a real connection in ways other shows could only dream of. The fact it manages to do all of this while being consistently laugh out loud funny is a real testament to the genius of the writing.
Matthew Dunsters direction brings Willy’s words to life, giving Sheridan plenty to do to maximise the impact of her turn as Shirley. This is only amplified thanks to the glorious set design from Paul Wills which is full of so much details, including a working kitchen. The juxtaposition of the bright background compared to this everyday homelife suggests a better life outside of those four walls, which comes into its own when act 2 jets off elsewhere. Lucy Carter’s lighting and Ian Dickinson’s atmospheric sound ensures no element falls flat in this well rounded and consistent production.
With such great writing and expert direction, there is a lot of expectation on Sheridan Smith to carry this production, especially given she is the only person on stage. To say she delivers would be a disservice to her. She well and truly knocks it out of the part in what is assuredly one of the greatest feats of acting I have witnessed. Sheridan gets a lot of praise for her work on stage and screen (Can we talk about her Cilla?) so it should come as no surprise to learn she is at the top of her game when it comes to acting. However, if you think you have seen Sheridan act her socks off in the past, you haven’t seen anything yet in what may well be a career best performance for her.
Sheridan’s ability to tap in to the inner workings of Shirley Valentine and fully embody the character is second to none. She completely transforms into her so effortlessly, you’d find it hard to believe she hadn’t been this person for all of her life and instead had just switched her on as she walked on to the stage. A versatile and nuanced portrayal where we see every side to Shirley is played out to perfection in a masterclass performance which truly encapsulates the raw emotion behind the decisions. Sheridan’s knack for comic timing further adds to this successful portrayal in a warm performance which effortlessly connects with the entire audience, blurring the barrier that is the stage between us.
Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine surely is a timeless classic. The fact it still feels relatable 37 years later is a testament to the skill of the writing. While this was the first production of the show I had seen, I find it hard to imagine how this one could be topped thanks to the career best performance from Sheridan Smith. Managing to feel urgent while still keeping a gentle approach to the story. Shirley Valentine is a great example of the art of storytelling and what an incredible performance truly looks like. While it is full of emotion throughout, ultimately this is a tale with no shortage of joy that ensures you leave the theatre with a smile. Bursting with heart, this life-affirming show could well be the play of the year.
Shirley Valentine plays at the Duke Of York’s Theatre until 3rd June.
Photos by Helen Murray