Playwright Willy Russell has crafted in Shirley Valentine an enduring play that resonates with a deep understanding of the female psyche, the wisdom of universal principles and a timeless comedy that parallels reality in a discerning and heartening manner.
Willy Russell’s comic monologue, Shirley Valentine was first performed in 1986 at the Everyman Theatre Liverpool. It received a variety of awards, rave reviews and was made into an Oscar nominated film.
The Ensemble Theatre at Kirribilli in Sydney’s current production celebrates the integrity of the playwright’s sensitivity, compassion, sense of humour and understanding of working class lives and stories.
Today over thirty years later its theme is still powerfully relevant ‘it’s never too late to be yourself’ and the audience was resolute in its commitment to Shirley’s personal journey.
Ensemble Theatre’s Artistic Director Mark Kilmurry has long wanted to direct a production of Shirley Valentine and asked renowned actor Sharon Millerchip to play the role.
Mark said: “Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine has at its core, within shrieks of recognition and laugh out loud brilliant one liners, a bittersweet melancholy and yearning we can all identify with. I am thrilled to be directing this play with the amazing Sharon Millerchip. The deal was I won’t direct it until Sharon said yes … thank goodness she said yes.”
Their partnership was exceptional and Sharon Millerchip’s portrayal of the Shirley Valentine character was flawless. She was impressively compelling as she communicated the essence of the plot and the depth of characterisation from her heart and her appreciation of the fragility of the human spirit.
Timing was everything in this performance and Sharon Millerchip delivered with intuitive perception, professional stamina and an accurate knowledge of the audience reaction.
Her connection with the audience was fashioned through her intelligent approach to bringing Shirley Valentine to life, relishing in her role and adding her own linking ideas and mannerisms with seemingly effortless ease.
Sharon Millerchip’s unique perspective and endearing chemistry were key ingredients to the creative process that made this theatre experience a revelation and a joy.
Her commitment to perfecting the role was enhanced by her accent which remained consistent and was skilfully supported by Dialect Coach Amy Hume.
In the opening scene Shirley was sitting at a table in a very dull ordinary suburban kitchen peeling potatoes for the evening meal. Her only constant companion is the ‘wall’ and as talks to the wall her personal narrative unfolds.
The audience discover she is a forty two year old middle aged mother of two adult children and wife of predictable, disinterested, boring husband Joe. She feels trapped in a monotonous marriage where her identity has been surrendered and buried.
Auspiciously her dearest friend, Jane has purchased tickets for them both to Greece and her chance for liberation is now a real possibility. But she is tortured by present commitments whilst nostalgic for her lost self.
Sharon Millerchip’s deft story telling talents and impeccable delivery of one-liners instantly created audience rapport, empathy and engagement.
The question of lost identity deeply intersects with the very substantial dilemma of how to overcome the issue of “unused life.” Initially the internal philosophical debate is fraught with unanswered questions. But it evolves into a glorious clarity and sense of purpose as Mrs Shirley Bradshaw transforms into Shirley Valentine.
She falls “in love with the idea of living” and rediscovers who she is.
The structure of this one hander is masterfully composed and the Director Mark Kilmurry sympathetically honours and savours the integrity of the playwright’s intention and character development.
The generosity and vulnerability of Shirley Valentine’s complex character is perfected by Sharon Millerchip’s performance and Mark Kilmurry’s strong definition of the mood, pace and action within his very pertinent interpretation of the script.
The Set Designer Simone Romaniuk’s ordinary suburban kitchen in Act 1 is authentically simple. The Liverpool setting is cleverly integrated in the view from the kitchen window where the row of identical homes complements the realism of the setting.
However in Act 11 the setting is transformed into the Greek holiday destination Lefkada. It is skilfully rendered through the backdrop of an exquisite post card, a visual testament to the beauty of the sheer cliffs and stunning turquoise waters.
The set concept was visually fluent and very effectively transported the audience to the warmth and magic of the Mediterranean. The more intimate nature of the set was imaginatively shaped with the pebbled floor, the rocky cliff top and the relaxed furniture and pot plants scattered casually.
This metaphor for change was symbolic taking the audience on a mystical journey from a mundane kitchen in Liverpool to the excitement, ever changing opportunities and scenic beauty of Greece.
The truisms embedded throughout the play sustained a very poignant literary and moral beauty that was deeply nourishing. Relationships where “if someone approves of you, you start to grow again” is one of many valuable gems of wisdom underscoring this discerning script.
Shirley Valentine is an extraordinary play where all elements of this production were unified into a cohesive, uplifting and entertaining theatrical experience.
Rose Niland, Special Features Writer New South Wales, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018
by Willy Russell
3 May – 9 June 2018
Director Mark Kilmurry
Cast Sharon Millerchip