The 30th anniversary tour of Shirley Valentine stars reality show winner Jodi Prenger. If the rehash of a 1986 story of the middle-aged angst of a Liverpudlian housewife puts a younger audience off, it is they who are missing out.
Writer Willy Russell, who is also a composer, songwriter and artist, was brought up by the women in his family. He worked as a hairdresser before training as a teacher. Was it here, and thanks to his upbringing, that he developed the natural affinity with the way women communicate, without judgement or malice? Educating Rita and Blood Brothers are also examples of this but Shirley Valentine is his homage to that time in a woman’s life when the children have flown the nest and a woman still finds herself in the position of carer to a husband who has drifted emotionally. A dead calm, or a domestic cage of her own making, her value dependent on her domestic skills. Add to that, a daughter returning home with expectations of comfort, all supplied by her mother. It is a familiar scenario for many women and not restricted to the middle aged; women still bear the greater mental load in the home. Russell somehow manages to elevate this woman and highlight her capabilities given the right environment. Forward thinking in the 1980s, highly topical today.
In the story, Shirley is offered the opportunity to escape for two weeks and in the first half of the show, it feels doubtful she will ever allow her own release. This is thanks to Prenger’s command of the character; she brings to it an earthiness and wisdom which gives genuine depth to the self-effacing character. Prenger’s accent is a bit wobbly at first. She seems to slip into Northern Irish momentarily, but this simply adds to the admiration of all the convincing characters she takes on during the show. Her best friend, her neighbour, her husband, daughter and brief Greek lover all delivered with panache and ease. Prenger turns a monologue into a full-cast ensemble. She gives an utterly sympathetic and likeable portrayal of Shirley and her acting skills envelop the audience in a joyously personable way. The dream speech is delivered with such sympathy that Shirley is our friend too; she knows us.
This performance, under the astute direction of Glen Walford, proves Prenger was not just a lucky television show winner. Her years of cabaret and, it is said, as an agony aunt, have given her true grounding as an entertainer. After her win, she stated, “I’m just a girl from Blackpool and to be here is my dream.” Prenger the woman is now living it. Her next gig is a tour of Fat Friends the Musical alongside Elaine C. Smith.
Shirley Valentine is rejuvenated by Prenger’s performance. It has become a classic feminist monologue on the joys, tribulations and poignancy of a woman’s journey of self-re-discovery and stands as a powerful testament to the quality and empathy of Russell’s writing.