by Lynn on May 20, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Capitol Theatre, Port Hope, Ont. Playing until May 28, 2023.

Written by Willy Russell

Directed by Karen Ancheta

Set and costumes by Jackie Chau

Lighting by Daniele Guevara

Sound by Lyon Smith

Cast: Deborah Drakeford

Charming and heart-squeezing in every way.

The Story. Willy Russell wrote Shirley Valentine in 1986.  Shirley is 42 years old and lives in Liverpool with her husband Joe.  She’s devoted her life to Joe and their children who are now grown and out of the house, but not settled.  In the process, she’s lost herself.  Her marriage is stale. She’s lonely in it because she misses her ‘self’. She talks to the wall for comfort.  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 steak and chips. 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.

The cause for this whimsy is that Shirley has a free-spirited friend named Jane who has decided to take Shirley with her on a vacation to Greece. The thought of going off without Joe to a place she’s always wanted to go, makes Shirley lightheaded. She accepts. And waits for the fallout and not just because she’s serving the wrong food on the wrong day.

The marriage was not always stale. Shirley and Joe were happy at the beginning of their marriage. They had fun. They painted the kitchen of their house together and teased each other. But then work and life and kids got in the way. This trip represents a change.

It’s the kind of trip that Joe would not do and Shirley always did what he wanted. She doesn’t even have the courage to tell him she’s going. She leaves a note on the cupboard with enough frozen dinners to tide him over for two weeks.  When she lands in Greece she is able to sit quietly in a chair by the sea, drinking a glass of wine. She’s always dreamed of that.  

She has an adventure and is sexually awakened by Costas, a taverna owner. But the play doesn’t go into cliché. Shirley is content there and finds that she is more confident than she expected.

The Production. It’s terrific. Jackie Chau has designed an interesting kitchen. The cupboards are suspended between rods that hold them up. There is no wall even though Shirley talks to it.  The result is that the cupboards look like they are floating in air. There is a simple table and chairs, a refrigerator and a working stove.

Shirley (Deborah Drakeford) arrives home from shopping, carrying a bag of groceries in her arms. Before she enters her house she pauses outside, takes a deep breath and lets it out in a sigh. Together with director Karen Ancheta, Deborah Drakeford as Shirley, lets us know in one stunning moment, of the sameness and drudgery of Shirley’s life. The routine of it is depressing, upbeat though Shirley tries to be.

She unpacks the groceries and puts them away, while telling us of her life, her husband, the sameness of it, and occasionally asking for confirmation from the wall. She talks about the spark that has gone out of their marriage. She tells us of a popular girl in school who made her feel inadequate only to meet her and find out the now grown ‘successful’ woman envied Shirley all those years ago. She talks of the trip and how she is giddy with excitement. All the while she is actually making Joe his egg and chips. The timing is meticulous of when to cut the potatoes into ‘chip’ size, when to put the oil on to fry them, when to add the butter to another pan for the eggs and when to add the beans in a pot to heat them up. It’s all done with detailed care, making it look effortless, because it is when you have to make the same things on the same days, in ‘like’, forever.  

I’ve seen Deborah Drakeford play Shirley Valentine in another production a few years ago, and now she is playing her again, in a different production. Deborah Drakeford gives a performance as Shirley that is always fresh, deeply thought and wise. She conveys a resigned humour when she is telling us of her life. The scenes in Greece reveal a woman at peace with herself because she’s found her self. She is aware of her strengths, her abilities, her confidence, her sexuality and her new ease with life. She has developed into this vibrant woman who is buoyant, alluring, intriguing and not stale or boring.    

It’s directed with smarts and humour by Karen Ancheta resulting in one terrific, thoughtful production.

Comment. The play was written by Willy Russell, a man!! A man is writing sensitively, thoughtfully and wisely about a woman, in 1986 (and before that in 1980 he wrote Educating Rita about another unhappy woman who discovers her love of learning in later life). So much for appropriation and thinking that only women should write about women, gays can only write about gays, and all the myriad concerns of today. Talent and imagination can conjure a believable world outside one’s experience.

Capitol Theatre Presents:

Plays until May 28, 2023.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (1 intermission)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Liz Evelyn May 24, 2023 at 3:31 pm

Deborah was captivating as Shirley, especially in Greece! A wonderful production, beautifully acted. Loved it!
Thank you


2 Lynn May 24, 2023 at 3:38 pm

You are very welcome! Lynn Slotkin