Shirley Valentine – Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Written by Willy Russell

Directed by Elizabeth Newman

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Hello, screen. You listen to me right; I’ve got a cracker story to tell you. 

Russell’s Shirley Valentine and her infamous conversations with the Kitchen wall are now closing in on forty years old. And yet, she never truly ages. The pine kitchen and lack of jittering gadgets may steady the production in its eighties abode, but the woman trapped in the isolation of an unfulfilled life, of a ‘dead-end’ regret with no prospects, rings as worrying as ever in Elizabeth Newman’s rejuvenated staging for the Pitlochry Festival Theatre, in association with An Tobar and Mull Theatre.

Chips n’ Egg. That’s the culinary delight on offer this evening for Shirley Bradshaw (née Valentine) and her husband. But it’s Thursday, and according to the gospel of Joe: on Thursdays, it’s got to be Mince. Her family life isn’t much better. Nor is the fact her pals keep rubbing things in her nose, but when friend Jane offers her a chance of fresh sights with tickets to Greece, whether he’s coming or not – Shirley tells Joe about the trip.

There’s an undercurrent of brilliance in Reid’s performance and Newman’s direction – where Shirley has a comprehension of her situation, she’s smart enough (despite her concerns) to grasp the tragedy of talking with a wall. This Shirley notes the idiosyncrasy of her life, choosing to accept and move past this, all without altering Russell’s word – carried over in Reid’s effortless performance in a personable if bittersweet note.

Transitions from a deft hand of comedic prowess and control to a painful one are strategically underplayed by Scottish performer Sally Reid, who beautifully captures the dynamics of Russell’s script without resorting to stringent melodrama. Surprisingly deadpan in delivery, Reid’s withdrawn performance in the initial act feels all the more engrossing when paired with the stretching of more heart-warming muscles in the show’s second act – capturing the devastation in Russel’s script, to see the regenerative powers Shirley undergoes, as the glimpses of the living she could possess slowly turn to fruition.

By the second act, no audience can resist Reid’s infectious charm and self-deprecating wit under Newman’s tactical direction, which perhaps grasps the nuances of this working-class woman’s life better than any contemporary staged version. Newman enables Reid’s character to merge with that of Valentine, resulting in a more authentic performance as Shirley which forges an iron clasp with the audience; a look from Reid says more than the writing, though that’s doing a sterling job.

Emily James set design excels somewhat in the production’s latter half, briefly hinted towards in Act one concealed behind the fitted kitchen units, a distant dream always in the background, transforms the domestic space into a soft and inviting arena for Reid to extend their movements and open themselves more directly with the audience. Glinting, the radiant shimmers of the Grecian oceans become an inviting comfort to frame the remainder of Russell’s honest and dry script. Dozens of tiles, each comprised of dozens more reflective miniature tiles all counteract one another to detach themselves from the past of Reid’s home, to demonstrate just how far Shirley has ventured, and how far back she would have to return. A rare turn, to see such thought placed into the lighting of an otherwise usual single-hander which relies on writing and performance, to see such emotional intelligence put into Jeanine Byrne’s lighting.

So, screen, that’s how it all went down. Can you imagine; the woman chatting with her kitchen wall, then taking the chance to alter the doldrums of her life? Mad, eh? At its core, Reid captures the quaintness and comforting nature of Russell’s timeless Shirley. This production captures the gut of the role and the everyday vulnerability of this working-class Liverpool woman. Yes, it has big laughs, but the laughs are mundane, relatable, and even painful in their recognition – and Newman and Reid understand this, and so too do the audience, becoming an absolute treasure of a show.

Definitive Contemporary Production

Shirley Valentine runs at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre until October 29th before touring.

Tickets for which may be obtained here.

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