Review: SHIRLEY VALENTINE (Thousand Islands Playhouse)

by Lynn on October 11, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Thousand Islands Playhouse, Gananoque, Ont.

Written by Willy Russell

Directed by Andrew Kushnir

Set and costumes by Jung-Hye Kim

Sound by Debashis Sinha

Lighting by Rebecca Picherack

Cast: Deborah Drakeford

A beautiful production in almost every way that illuminated so many hidden secrets of this beguiling play.

The Story. Shirley is in a sad place in her life. She has devoted her life to her husband Joe and daughter Milandra and lost herself (her self?) in the process. Her marriage is stale. Joe expects dinner on the table as soon as he comes home from work. He is very set in his ways. If it’s Wednesday he expects to get egg and steak. If it’s Thursday he expects egg and chips. I might be mixing up the meals for the days, but you get my meaning.

Shirley plans to shaking things up. She is serving Joe egg and chips and it’s not the right day for it.

Shirley has a free-spirited woman-friend who has decided to take Shirley on a vacation with her to Greece. The thought of going off without Joe to a place she’s always wanted to go, makes Shirley lightheaded. But she accepts. And waits for the fallout.

 The Production. Jung-Hye Kim has created a compact working kitchen for Act I and a simple beach set, with a beautiful blue sky, for Greece in Act II.

In Act I Shirley (Deborah Drakeford) drinks wine, talks to the wall for company and prepares Joe’s egg and chips. She takes the groceries out of the Tesco shopping bag, and puts them away in the working, full fridge. Initially I am concerned about the layout of Jung-Hye Kim’s kitchen. The shape of the kitchen is a V with the tip of the V pointing to the middle of the audience, rather than a slightly thrust stage. The door to the outside is upstage left. The fridge is to the right of the door with the sink beside that. Then along the stage right edge of the V there is a stove facing into the kitchen with the back of the stove rising up. Then there is a counter beside that. There is a table and chairs in the middle of the kitchen. My concern is that half of the audience does not get a clear view of the stove where Shirley will make the egg and chips. Audiences love watching actors make real food. They are transfixed by the activity. The stove back blocks the view of the people on the extreme right side. I am just off centre and I don’t clearly see her make the eggs. I also wonder if that counter next to the stove is too small to prepare the chips.

Not to worry. Andrew Kushnir solves this neatly by having Shirley peel the potato and cut it into chips by doing it in clear view at the table in the centre of the kitchen. She fries the chips in a fryer she brings out from under the counter, which she then puts on the counter beside the stove. Nicely solved, but it’s the fryer that blocks my view of Shirley preparing a frying pan for the eggs. Frustrating.

Kushnir creates moments that are intensely moving. At one point Shirley takes the airline ticket to Greece out of her purse and shows it to us. She then holds it to her with such reverie it takes your breath away. Shirley remembers a terrible moment when she was in school and the teacher humiliated her in public to the class that again is handled with care but for the maximum effect on the audience. During intermission there is a sound effect of a plane taking off and later landing. Nice touch, that.

Deborah Drakeford imbues Shirley with a winning sunniness, a hope that there has to be something better, a tenacity to try and create that better life, a willingness to be surprised and the faith in the love she has for Joe and the hope that he rises to the occasion that Shirley offers him. There is a sense in Act I that Shirley is hanging on, trying to make the best of things, yet being brave to challenge the norm. In Act II Drakeford gives Shirley a new confidence that in her search for her self. It’s a lovely, subtle transformation. Drakeford gives a performance brimming with life, optimism, the wisdom to embrace the sadness she is feeling at the loss of her self, and joy when she finds what she is looking for. Lovely performance and production.

Comment. I never get tired of seeing this play. I saw Nora McLellan do Shirley Valentine earlier this year in a lovely performance of it at the Victoria Playhouse, Petrolia and not I won’t compare the two performances. They are each their own entity. It’s a play in which a gifted male playwright, Willy Russell, can dig deep into the unhappy heart and mind of a woman who is lost. It’s without anger, vengeance, getting even or boiling regret. Instead it’s about love, a marriage that has settled into sameness and grinding repetition and a woman who wants to change that. Quiet, unassuming Shirley Valentine wants to change her life and her husband’s. She wants to grab at life, talk to her husband again and not the wall, and find her self. It’s a play rich with subtlety, nuance, details of the heart and with each production I discover a bit more and see things I missed.

Produced by the Thousand Islands Playhouse.

Began: Sept. 21,2018.

Closes: Oct. 14, 2018.

Running Time:  2 hours

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