Thursday, September 12, 2019

Shirley Valentine – a pithy, physical and very poignant production of a much-loved classic (Lyric Theatre until 5 October)

The Lyric Theatre’s new production of Shirley Valentine creates quite an impression.

Willy Russell’s script asks us to believe that the titular character can not just break free from her prison of a life tending to the needs of her self-centred and burdensome family, but that she can steel herself to risk embarking on a journey of self-discovery and self-care, to travel to Greece and find a place of safety outside the family home. And we’re asked to believe that she won’t just run out the door and never look back, but that she’ll dismantle the shackles that constrain her, push back the barriers and walk free with her shoulders back, like a trapped bird dismantling the bars of her cage before flying away.

The flimsy nature of Paul Keogan’s kitchen set brings to life director Patrick J O’Reilly’s enduring vision that physical storytelling can permeate all aspects of a performance. Deconstructionism is everywhere. The constant gentle movement between the two acts is not only mesmerising, but moves the story on and gives a real sense of time passing. Nearly every prop is reused after the interval, emphasising that Shirley is still capable of engaging with her old life that she now better understands.

The tragic absence of Julie Maxwell adds another layer to the performance. Earlier this year, she very successfully directed Tara Lynne O’Neill in Me, Mum and Dusty in the Baby Grand with a deftness of touch that felt like the start of a very promising directorial career. Co-writer of the Theatre at the Mill’s Christmas shows in recent years, and a star of Soft Border Patrol, the actor will be remembered for many roles, not least her bold playing of emotionally-stripped and complex Marian in Mydidae back in 2015. As a young girl, she débuted on the Lyric stage in a production of Joseph and his Technicolour Dream Coat and memorably played the eldest matriarchal sister in Lucy Caldwell’s adaptation of Three Sisters in 2016. More recently appearing in The Ladykillers and A Streetcar Named Desire, she left her final mark on the Lyric’s stage as assistant director in this production of Shirley Valentine. It seemed like little of Julie’s life was “unused” as Shirley Valentine might have said. But it turned out to be far too short, and the triumph of the final show she worked on is tinged with much sadness and grief, and the opening night tribute was heartfelt and deserved.
“Marriage is like the Middle East: there’s no solution!”
Finally, there’s the impression of O’Neill’s strong performance, wearing a wig that is more Anthea Turner than Pauline Collins, and exploiting her trademark Belfast accent and well-tuned comedy timing. The unexpected impact of the encounters with belittling school friend Marjorie and snooty neighbour Gillian are joyous but never laboured.

O’Neill paces around the triangular kitchen like it’s a cell. Ostensibly talking to the walls of her kitchen – which feels like a dated device on Russell’s part – she offers more than a nod and a wink to the stalls as Shirley recalls at length various conversations and confrontations before turning her head and giving the audience a conspiratorial eyeroll.

Despite 105 minutes of talking across two acts, nothing feels like a monologue. There’s always something to do at the same time, from making egg and chips for tea to mopping the kitchen. Again, the physical supports the verbal with key actions by O’Neill seamlessly echoing definitive moments in her dialogue.

The first act is a bit of a slow cooker as Shirley shifts from depressed housewife to terrified but potentially emancipated woman. The shift is gradual, at times worryingly nearly imperceptible, but it happens and by the interval there was a tear in my eye as Shirley packed her bags and prepared to flee.

When O’Neill next strides on stage, her Shirley is a new woman, with self-respect, self-confidence, a new sense of perspective and a glowing tan that sets off her beachwear and fanny pack.

There were moments in the first half when I found myself wondering just how the words of a male writer could have such a pronounced effect on the audience, with men giggling but so many women laughing heartily at the sharp observations and insight. But then I remembered that Russell worked as a women’s hairdresser and has listened to these confessional stories so often before that he’s perfectly equipped to retell them in his play.
“I think sex is like shopping in Stewarts: overrated.”
At Russell’s suggestion, Shirley Valentine has been relocated from Liverpool to Belfast. Oisín Kearney also adapted the Lyric’s productions of Russell’s Educating Rita, and the localisation – with some local vernacular, and mentions of Botanic, Hillsborough and Donaghadee – feels very natural and not at all forced.

A barely discernible 1980’s soundtrack emanating from the kitchen radio is never allowed to interfere with the dialogue. Keogan’s mood lighting for the walls in the first act baffled me, creating sunset after sunset as if we were on a planet orbiting its sun every 15 minutes, with no obvious tie-in with the script. (And after watching Crocodile Fever on the same stage last week, I was worried about what might come in through the dark kitchen window! On the last night, maybe someone will carry a particular green prop past for badness …)

With O’Reilly’s choreography capturing Shirley’s claustrophobic life in Belfast, and with the portrayal of a real sense of loneliness and vulnerability, O’Neill delivers a memorable performance that makes the wit in Russell’s script sing and connects this 1986 Liverpool script with the 2019 Belfast audience. With stories of gender justice, equal pay and coercive control often in the news, there’s still much of relevance in Shirley’s story.

Shirley Valentine runs at the Lyric Theatre until 5 October.

Photo credit: Johnny Frazer

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