Russ Hunt's Reviews

Shirley Valentine
by Willy Russell

Theatre New Brunswick
April 1994

As theatre companies cope ingeniously with hard times, one- and two-character plays are become more and more frequent. They represent a particular sort of challenge for organizations like Theatre New Brunswick, where there are large stages, large houses, and where audiences expect large, ambitious productions. It's difficult to avoid giving the impression that the production isn't big enough to fill the venue.

That's no problem for Nicola Lipman, whose 300 watt smile lights up the role of Shirley Valentine. Her impeccable timing and infectious, conspiratorial chuckle, the perfectly adjusted rhythm of her earthy, British-working-class speech, and the authority with which she carries out the domestic business of making chips and eggs for her absent husband while explaining her life to us (and to the kitchen wall), all conspire to draw an audience into her world, seducing us to care about what's important to her and laugh with her at what she finds funny.

And what she finds funny is the best part of the evening: some of the one-liners that punctuate her monologue are as good as anything we've heard in the Playhouse recently. "Cadbury's would go out of business if women didn't hold back a bit," she says, or "Sex is like Sainsbury's, overrated: just a lot of pushing and shoving and you don't really come away with very much."

Lipman's performance is almost enough to make us forget some of the problems with Willy Russell's script -- problems which, in fact, leave you wondering, at the end of the evening, whether you're really coming away with very much.

It's easy to sympathize with Shirley's plight as she outlines it in the first scene -- it may, in fact, even be a little too easy. A 42 year old working class English woman with grown children, a husband whose most important concern is whether there's mince for Thursday night supper, and an empty kitchen -- and who has nothing else at all -- is not a figure about whom there's much real complexity or conflict. Should she leave her husband to his chips and run off to Greece for a holiday? Will she? Of course. No question.

And will she meet a romantic Greek who makes the earth move for her, and with whom there are no complex entanglements or difficulties -- a sort of post-liberation Harlequin fantasy of "good sex" -- and rediscover her passionate youth? Natch. No prob.

And will we believe it? And will we think it convincing that she throw away her ticket home, pick up a miraculously available waitressing job, and at the close be awaiting the arrival on the beach of her wooden-souled husband, who, she tells us, because he's seen too many Rambo flicks, is coming to "fetch her home where she belongs"?

Nicola Lipman and director Allen MacInnes have done their best to make us buy all that. Whether we do so is, I think, not so much a function of her sharply focused performance as it is of how strongly we share the script's baby-boom nostalgia for sexual liberation and its vague hopes for recaptured youth. The problem with Russell's script -- like that with his earlier play, "Educating Rita" -- is that it feeds our prejudices, leaves us comfortable with our already existing ideas. Even the ones than which, when we stop to think about it, we already know better. We might like to believe that good sex will change our lives and fix everything, but we just can't any more.

It doesn't help that the kitchen in which Shirley works and meditates in the first act is so much more finely detailed and deeply convincing than the shallow, high-school-production mockup of "Greece" we see in the second act. It's as though our skepticism -- isn't this just a Cosmopolitan Magazine fantasy? -- had carried over into the set design. That same lack of commitment seemed occasionally to affect even the lighting, which was surprisingly unpolished for the Playhouse, with some sudden, obvious, and distracting cues -- for instance, the "sunset" lighting which appears just as, or slightly after, Shirley mentions it.

The Beatles tunes which bridge the scenes are perfectly appropriate. It's fairly predictable, though, that at the end of the first act, as Shirley's about to leave for Greece, the song would not be the complicated and ambivalent "She's Leaving Home," but instead, "We Can Work it Out." And even more appropriate that the evening should conclude with the wonderfully simple- minded "All You Need Is Love." Would it were so. But I'd prefer a play which acknowledged, with Moxie Fruvous, that we're stuck in the nineties, and it's going to take a lot more than love to enable all the Shirley Valentines in their kitchens to use up what she calls their leftover, unused, life.

Still, it was spring in Fredericton on opening night, and maybe nobody wanted to have their fantasies tinkered with or questioned: it seemed to be enough for the enthusiastic audience to spend an evening laughing delightedly at Shirley's inspired zingers.

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