Theatre Review: Shirley Valentine – A Holiday’s As Good As A Change, Or Greece Is The Word

January 30, 2022



Shirley Valentine / Directed by Gina Shmukler / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways


Willy Russell’s 1986 play has not aged a day, and for once, audiences might wish that it had, as its theme is a sad one in which redemption requires loss (even if what is being lost is ultimately what is not worth keeping). The character Shirley Valentine (Natasha Sutherland) represents rather too many people who may be in the audience or be friends or family of members of those in the theatre. Most of these individuals are likely women, which is a bias that continues to sorely require addressing, though gender, age and background don’t exclude anyone from finding themselves in situations where their passion has been suppressed by routine and banality. If your life has involved making compromises you regret and then finding yourself unable to extricate yourself from the life that resulted from those decisions, Shirley became a theatrical and then cinematic trailblazer more than 30 years ago.

There are two simple but cleverly designed sets – one per act – that support the content of the nearly two-hour monologue, with uniform white backgrounds and a small range of accent colours both keeping the focus on Sutherland and giving the 36-year-old play a fresh, modern look.

Shirley is a smart, sensitive, capable woman who has all of those facets more or less ignored in her day-to-day life, finding herself lonely in a marriage that’s long gone off the romantic boil and underestimated by all but the most generous of her loved ones and acquaintances. A friend offering to pay for a trip to Greece gives her an opportunity to make an out of character decision to temporarily ignore her responsibilities and provide herself with some much-needed and long-neglected self-care.

The writing is deceptively sophisticated, cycling through Shirley’s observations and reactions to very normal incidents and activities – doing chores in her kitchen, shopping, reacting to strangers while on holiday and more – while using humour and everywoman warmth to underline the pathos of the character’s predicament. It would take an unfortunately well-developed lack of self-awareness to watch this play and not find yourself identifying with either a specific situation or the way an emotion is recognised or expressed.

Sutherland is excellent in the role, giving her character first the cheerful hopelessness of a sweet but depressed housewife realising she deserves better, and then evincing the cautious mischief of a woman enjoying growing into understanding and claiming her full and exhilarating value.

This is a story that has been and will continue to be told in different ways, with varying degrees of harshness or tenderness. But the specific formula used in Shirley Valentine, bolstered by the strengths of this particular production, mean that anyone trying to improve on this show’s impact will have their work cut out for them.