First published in The Times, Thursday July 30 2015
The unique selling point of live theatre is, of course, its unpredictability. Due to bereavement the actress Angela Darcy has had to withdraw from the Byre’s production of Shirley Valentine, with Irene Allan her eleventh hour replacement. With barely two days’ rehearsal under her belt, Allan bravely takes to the stage for the opening night of Willy Russell’s bittersweet comedy, performing the second part of the play with the script in hand.
The fact that the starring actress is performing “on book” does nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the paying public. Allan’s first appearance is met with warm applause and she leaves the stage to a standing ovation. The response matters, because the play depends heavily for its impact on the complicity between the vibrant central character and her audience. And, despite the odd hesitation and a sometimes-wandering Scouse accent, Allan makes light work of Russell’s hefty monologue, told by a 42-year-old wife and mother so worn out by drudgery and loneliness that she talks to the wall of her kitchen and laments the fact that she has lived “such a little life”.
While Allan – aided and abetted by Russell’s funny, at times insightful script and slick direction by Rita Henderson – infuses the heroine’s journey of personal discovery with infectious life, she also does a fine job of portraying the play’s offstage characters. And, just as the actress conjures up Shirley’s flighty friend Jane, her ungrateful daughter Millandra and husband Joe, who is apoplectic when his wife serves him chips and egg instead of the expected mince for tea, so Gregor Donnelly, the set designer, surrounds Shirley’s claustrophobic kitchen with screens showing Liverpool landmarks such as the Liver Building and Strawberry Fields. The staging opens out into an inviting beach scene for the second act when Shirley decamps to Greece and succeeds in fulfilling at least some of her dreams.
Though the playwright has a tendency at times to fall back on clichés and stereotypes, this now-classic play’s unabashed appeal to the heart is still very hard to resist. For obvious reasons, Henderson’s production may be taking a little longer than usual to completely find its feet, but Allan has already passed the play’s most significant test – making the audience care about and connect with the spirited Shirley – with flying colours.