Local audiences will be more familiar with the film adaptation than with Willy Russell’s 1988 West End and Broadway debut play Shirley Valentine. Shirley is a lonely, middle-aged Liverpudlian housewife and typical, selfless mother, who has lost her identity. Without even noticing it, her self has somehow been subsumed in the drudgery of life – domestic routine, a spoilt, indifferent daughter, mundane friends and a stale marriage with a selfish chauvinist. Sex has become like shopping – “lots of pushing and shoving and you still come out with very little in the end”. She asks, “Whatever happened to Shirley Valentine?”, and realises hers is a life gone unused. Her dream – “to drink a glass of wine in a country where the grape is grown”. When a friend wins a trip to Greece for two, Shirley has some tough calls to make.
The script by Russell (who also wrote Educating Rita) is amusing, economical, faultlessly structured and in the tradition of Alan Bennett’s groundbreaking Talking Heads manages to make the difficult theatrical devices of soliloquy and monologue work effortlessly.
Anthea Thompson stars – a word one can seldom use judiciously – in the eponymous role. Her nuanced interpretation and studied portrayal promises to be one of the best performances of the year.
With Thompson on board, the stage version works far better than the movie. Many of the theatrical conceits, such as Shirley talking to the wall of her home in England, and later on her rock in Greece, don’t translate as well on celluloid. Shirley’s fantasies and her romance lose their suggestive power in the film, which is diffuse and vaguely glam. If you enjoyed the movie, you owe it to your self not to miss this production.