Surely Could Be Better
Deborah Curtis gives a strong performance in the Nomad Theatre's Shirley Valentine, and director Donald Berlin scarcely puts a foot wrong. But all of this talent presents itself in the service of a trite and shallow script.
As the lights come up, we're introduced to the Manchester kitchen of Shirley Bradshaw, nee Shirley Valentine, an ingeniously designed set by Brian Miller that's one of the high points of the production. Everything's cozy, tight, and bright, bright yellow. Our heroine settles at the table to peel potatoes for her husband's tea and tell us the details of her unsatisfactory life. Her husband's a mopey bastard who complains if his meals aren't served exactly on time. Although from her account her school days were pretty ghastly, she misses them and the gutsy young person she thinks she used to be -- that is, Shirley Valentine. Shirley has two grown children, both of them selfish and unfocused. She's so lonely she talks to the wall. This last device is a bit too cute -- and problematic in terms of performance, since the actress addresses the audience so directly that the wall seems superfluous.
There are actually some pretty funny lines in this act, particularly Shirley's musings about sex. (Her complaints about Freud, though, must have seemed dated even in the late '80s, when Shirley Valentine was first performed. The feminist backlash to Freud's theory about orgasms took place thirty years ago.) Curtis is a talented actress and holds the stage well. It's also fascinating to watch her prepare her husband's eggs and chips: She actually cooks them on a workable stove as we watch, and with great deftness and skill.
A divorced friend has asked Shirley to go with her on a two-week vacation to Greece, and Shirley's in a swivet. She longs to go; she wants to "drink wine in the place where the grapes were grown." But she doesn't know how to broach the idea with her negative and dyed-in-the-wool husband, who, it seems, can't imagine feeding or clothing himself without her. Her neighbor is catty about the idea, her daughter incredulous. She suffers a cascade of self-doubting thoughts. Who is she, boring, middle-aged Shirley Bradshaw, to have any fun? How can she ever brave "the land beyond the wall"?
Guess whether she goes or not, dear reader. Sorry -- no prizes.
In the second act, our Shirley is suntanned, halter-top clad and talking to a rock on the shore of Greece's wine-dark sea. Turning from the rock, she tells us that her perfidious, pseudo-feminist friend took off with a man on the first day of the trip. Unfazed and happy in her solitude, Shirley nonetheless eventually found a Greek waiter to introduce her to her clitoris. The thought of going home became unbearable, so she got a job at the taverna herself (no visa or permit requirements mess up this cheery scenario). Now she's awaiting the arrival of her husband. Will he try to drag her home, or succumb to the joys of drinking wine where the grapes were grown? It'll be fine either way, because Shirley's finally found herself.
Self-discovery is always a risky plot premise. It can so easily slide into self-indulgence, as it does here. Author Willy Russell apparently figures that if a truth is worth stating once, it is worth stating five times. And it's all so predictable: The action proceeds in a straight line, without detour or surprise. Even in absentia, the other characters could have added some richness and depth, but nothing and no one has any reality in Shirley Valentine except the protagonist herself, whose jokes about everyone in the restaurant "waiting to see what's going to happen to the woman on her own," and everyone at the airport, as she flees the ticket counter, wanting "me to come back" hint at a rather ugly narcissism. Shirley's friends and associates are fluid creatures, encouraging or betraying her as the plot dictates. Both in his current manifestation and in her memory of him as an appealing young lover, her husband is pure stereotype. The Greek waiter is a generic fantasy of the Mediterranean lover, and Greece itself is just one of those sunny places middle-aged women go to have sex.
For a while, there's enough particularity to Deborah Curtis's performance to anchor the play. She catches the rhythms of the north-of-England accent; she's very funny when mimicking other people. And I like the way she takes a quick sniff to make sure the milk's all right before pouring it into her tea. It would have helped if she'd maintained more of this wry humor throughout and chosen to work against the script's sentimentality instead of underlining it.
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