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An early valentine

"Shirley Valentine" 

An early valentine

Blackfriars Theatre is getting a slight jump on the fall theater season with its early-September production of "Shirley Valentine." However, this production of Willy Russell's endearing one-character play, anchored by a terrific performance, is not a theatrical hors d'oeuvre. It's a modest, expertly prepared, and tasty meal.

Susan Hopkins plays Shirley Bradshaw (née Shirley Valentine), a Liverpool housewife and mother in her early 50's who has a predictable, unsatisfying life. Her children are grown (but keep returning), her husband takes her for granted, and she feels that life's good things have passed her by. Her main confidante is her kitchen wall. (The Bradshaw family members are not onstage physically, but Shirley's descriptions of them and of her friends are vivid enough.)

Out of the blue, Shirley's friend Jane, a feminist of sorts ("She believes all men are potential rapists, even the Pope"), wins a two-week trip to Greece and buys Shirley a ticket to accompany her. The beginning of the play consists of Shirley's deliberating about whether to go and her family's possible reaction.

In the second scene, she's all ready to go — without telling her husband Joe. Once she arrives in Greece, her feminist friend ditches her for a man she met on the plane, so Shirley is left to her own devices. Energized by "the excitement of not knowing," she immediately finds all those lovely Mediterranean things that bottled-up English visitors have found for centuries: sunshine, warmth, blue water, wine, and easy romance.

When we encounter Shirley in Act Two, she is thoroughly acclimated and feels herself changing back to the confident woman she was before she was married — "Shirley the sensational, Shirley the brave, Shirley Valentine." At play's end, she's awaiting her husband, who is coming to Greece to bring her back, and may or may not be successful.

Russell's script is maybe just a bit pat, but he created a wonderfully rounded and engaging character in Shirley. The play is full of funny anecdotes, nice details of working-class British life, and sharp insights. I probably shouldn't claim to speak for middle-aged British housewives, but Russell's portrait of Shirley does feel genuine, insightful, and heartfelt.

It helps to have a terrific actor playing Shirley, too. Susan Hopkins played this role for Blackfriars 15 years ago to great acclaim. I didn't see that performance, but her current portrayal of Shirley is delectable: spot-on without being at all showy (a trap some single-performer plays can fall into, particularly plays where the character needs to speak with an accent), and detailed without ever seeming fussy or overthought. (Hopkins sails through pages of script while slicing potatoes and frying eggs, and makes it seem perfectly natural.)

Hopkins' mildly Liverpudlian accent is perfectly natural and her performance in general is very subtle, drawing the audience (or at least this audience member) in immediately. She lands all of Shirley's self-deprecating jokes, but is also wrenching and moving when Shirley's good humor fails her and she expresses her frustration and bewilderment. And by the time she raises her glass to an uncertain future at the end, you're with her completely.

John Haldoupis's set design tells the play's story as clever and succinctly as Willy Russell does. Act One takes place in a very 70's kitchen, all rather dowdy earth tones. Shirley's future is hinted at by a partly assembled jigsaw puzzle of the Parthenon on the kitchen table. In Act Two, the Parthenon is the backdrop, and the rock by the ocean where Shirley goes to puzzle over her life is an abstract structure — made of big puzzle pieces.

Haldoupis also directed the play, and "Shirley Valentine" seems like a close collaboration between actor and director; the show's tricky pacing is well thought-out. (Act Two is awfully short, but that's not their fault.) On opening night, the incidental music was just a bit loud at times, and the final blackout seemed abrupt, but that was hardly enough to spoil the appealing atmosphere that Russell, Hopkins, and Haldoupis have created.

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