February 28 – March 18, 2012
Max Bell Theatre
Nicola Cavendish has said the reason she’s played Shirley Valentine on the stage for 22 years is because she keeps getting asked. Always hesitant at first, she ultimately gives in and says yes due to her belief that the play is an important piece of theatre with a crucial message for us all – namely to live your life to the fullest. I’ll agree that the message, clichéd though it may be, is not a bad thing to be reminded of. To the notion that Shirley Valentine can be considered a significant piece of the theatrical cannon, well once I finish snickering I will try to keep my inner snob in check and graciously say that I don’t think so. What Shirley Valentine can be called is a crowd-pleasing, albeit at times painfully dated dramedy that doesn’t ask its audience to think too hard before it laughs or reflect too deeply on the poignant moments.
Yet despite any reservations about the play’s weight or the need to keep telling this outmoded tale, there is no arguing that the one woman in this one-woman show is marvelous. Nicola Cavendish as Shirley Valentine, a 46-year old Manchester housewife and mother of two who finds herself lost in her marriage and removed from the happy girl she once was, breathes extraordinary humanity into the character. Whether she is horsing about with the funny bits or reflecting on the more difficult periods of her life, Cavendish gives us a Shirley that is both delightfully rowdy and touchingly personal. You just can’t help but care for her and root for her awakening even if the circumstances make you bristle.
Written in 1986 by Willy Russell (of Educating Rita and Blood Brothers fame) the narrative tick that drives the play is Shirley’s propensity to talk out loud to herself. Well, actually to inanimate object such as the wall of her kitchen. It is in this way that the audience learns of Shirley’s dissatisfaction with her life, her inattentive and unloving husband Joe and her get out of jail card in the form of a paid ticket to Greece for a girl’s holiday with her best friend “the feminist” Jane. Without telling her husband, Shirley takes off to the island of Corfu, is quickly dumped by Jane for a fellow and is left on her own to have a quick affair with a local charmer and eventually discover who she once was and still is. Cue the follow your dreams and take ownership of your life music.
And this is where the problems with Shirley Valentine start. In theme it is certainly not unique. Plays about following your path and what happens when you don’t are plenty. Classics such as Chekov’s Three Sisters, sappy heart-warmers such as Tuesdays with Morrie and even musical stabs such as Billy Elliot all tackle the dream fulfillment genre. So why do we need to be fed this message again in the form of Shirley Valentine?
If Director Roy Surette had modernized the play and given Shirley relevance for today’s audience, it could be argued that yes, the play does have something new to say. But instead we get the terribly dated story where a 46-year-old woman is considered old and out to pasture and a narrative that plays any mention of sex by Shirley as a punch line. Sure audiences will laugh when a comedic “middle-aged” housewife says “I think sex is like supermarkets, you know, overrated. Just a lot of pushing and shoving and you still come out with very little at the end.” After all, it’s this kind of humor that keeps sitcoms in the ratings on mainstream TV. And I’m certainly not knocking the right to have a good light-fun evening in the theatre. But when it comes to Shirley Valentine for a modern audience, it feels uncomfortably like we are laughing not with her, but at her as a kind of silly bird mascot for a time thankfully gone by.
Could you go and enjoy this play for Cavendish’s terrific performance and easy laughs with all thoughts of relevance or theatrical challenge be dammed? Sure – there were certainly enough people doing just that on the night I was there. But should you also question Theatre Calgary’s decision to dust off a has-been play and do nothing new to challenge and intrigue the audience? Absolutely!
For the guys – Do you like sitcoms? Do you like sitcoms where non-threatening women poke fun at male stereotypes? Do you like an easy night in the theatre? MAYBE SEE IT
For the girls – You will either see Shirley as a very funny role model for women on how to regain yourself or an amusing flashback that doesn’t hold importance by today’s standards. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theater goer – Cavendish is fantastic, the laughs are plenty and although it is a one-woman show there is a distinct storyline that is easy and enjoyable to follow. SEE IT
For the theater junkie – Despite a great performance, the story is tired and offers nothing new. Good news is that I hear Cavendish will be retiring the role shortly and hopefully will be in town with another more interesting play sometime soon. SKIP IT