Shirley Valentine

Jun 14 2024 | By More

★★★★☆      Tour de force

Royal Lyceum Theatre: Wed 12 – Sat 29 Jun 2024
Review by Hugh Simpson

Sally Reid’s performance lights up the Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s production of Shirley Valentine, touring to the Lyceum for a three week summer season.

Willy Russell’s perennially popular one-character play from 1986 deals, of course, with a Liverpool woman who takes a break from her stifling lifestyle and goes on holiday to Greece, hoping to find the woman she was when she was still Shirley Valentine, before she became Mrs Shirley Bradshaw.

A woman with red curly hair in a pink top is in a kitchen, holding a glass of white wine.

Sally Reid in Shirley Valentine. Pic: Fraser Band.

The play might be forgiven for showing its age a little, but it remains worryingly up-to-date. There is the odd line that might be written differently now, but very little that needs any kind of apology – certainly compared to a great many other works of the period.

There are several reasons for this. One is that it remains a beautifully structured piece. Another is that many of the jokes are still funny, and are still rooted in attitudes and situations that have not changed nearly as much as we would like to think.

The main reason, however, for its continuing freshness is that Shirley is quite simply a brilliantly drawn character, born out of razor-sharp observation and deep sympathy. This has led to the play often being dismissed as fluff, or bizarrely ‘only for women’ when it is deceptively serious, and something that men have always had an urgent need to engage with.

talking to the wall

Because, of course, it is not all funny by any means. There is as much tragedy as comedy in the portrayal of a 42-year-old woman who feels that life has passed her by, talking to the wall now that her children have left, cooking chips and egg for a husband who thinks that because he used to love her he can treat her with less consideration than the man at the corner shop.

A woman with red curly hair in a pink top is in a kitchen, talking to the walls.

 Sally Reid in Shirley Valentine. Pic: Fraser Band.

Sally Reid nails both facets of the character. Her comic timing is a joy to witness, and the downbeat moments are full of sadness without ever being overplayed. The Scouse accent is also commendably authentic, helped in no small part by the way that a Scottish performer can do the ‘ch’ sound Liverpudlians add in the middle of ‘Fazakerley’.

Reid holds the entire audience in the palm of her hand throughout from the moment she raises her eyes just slightly when pouring a glass of wine at the opening. This is no small achievement over two hours, with just her on stage; anyone more familiar with the film is always going to be surprised that no-one else appears. There is no other noise (Patricia Panther’s ominous trip-hoppy sound design only surfaces between scenes), and Jeanine Byrne’s lighting is deliciously understated.

There is an extraordinary intimacy to the connection between performer and audience, crystallised in the moment when the faintest crackle of frying signals that the chips and egg are actually being made on stage. This is also testament to the realism of Emily James’s first-half set of Shirley’s fitted kitchen, whose nature is cleverly mirrored by the much more stylised but equally striking Greek beach after the interval – a change beautifully hinted at partway through the first half.

careful pacing

While Reid’s performance is worthy of all of the acclaim it has received, it must be noted how much Elizabeth Newman’s direction is responsible for the production’s success. The smallest details have been thought through, and there is a realism and careful pacing to everything that adds greatly to the effect.

Perhaps it is a little too stately and quiet at times, threatening to get lost in the Lyceum auditorium, which means that it is not quite the stone-cold five-star production it so nearly becomes. Rest assured, however, that it is very good indeed, with an excellent performer really shining.

Running time: Two hours and 10 minutes (including one interval).
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay St, EH9 3AX
Wednesday 12 – Saturday 29 June 2024
Tues – Sat at 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed and Sat at 2.30 pm
Further details and tickets: Book here.

A woman with red curly hair in a red kimono sits on turquoise outdoor furniture.

 Sally Reid in Shirley Valentine. Pic: Fraser Band.


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