Shirley Valentine★★★★Ensemble Theatre, May 10, until June 9
"I know the film and play, so why bother?" you ask.
Here's why: Sharon Millerchip is not playing Shirley Valentine, she's living her. Because performances of such comprehensive truth are rare in Sydney. Because here's a chance to see every flex of a neck muscle, twitch of an eyebrow, flare of a nostril or cock of a wrist result from sliding inside the skin of another and letting the performance unfold.
The writing in Willy Russell's 1986 one-woman play doesn't age, and the subject matter only partially does. Certainly one hopes fewer 42-year-old women are reduced to talking to the wall to cope with being the slave of a husband (who expects mince on Thursdays) and "grown-up" children who demand more sugar in their wretched Horlicks.
But the bigger question Shirley asks – "Why is it there's all this unused life?" – is as timeless as Greece, the country where the Liverpudlian finds she has not entirely lost the knack of living a little, as opposed to living a little life. In the process Shirley sheds a self-contempt that is bound up in the meanness of her existence, and replaces it with a forgiving affection for herself.
The piece is popular precisely because Shirley is so likable and amusing – "If you described me to me, I'd tell you you were telling a joke" – despite her life narrowing until it is like walking down a single plank toward eternity.
To Russell's text Millerchip adds a layer of vivacity that is all her own. She also lets Shirley ache without making her sentimental, and her Liverpudlian accent never flinches (with help from dialect coach Amy Hume).
Directing one-handers can be more challenging than directing casts of 20, with any falseness in the internal logic of just standing up or sitting down now glaringly obvious, and Millerchip and director Mark Kilmurry have crafted a production with invisible seams.
Designer Simone Romaniuk, meanwhile, cannily offers a literal humdrum kitchen of a dowdy semi-detached, and then a less literal Greek island for Shirley's dream-come-true holiday.
In the words of the most famous Liverpudlian, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."
Shirley Valentine survives because Shirley is brave enough to retake the reins. If you're still dubious, remind yourself just how enjoyable the confluence of skilful writing and a supreme performance can be.
John Shand has written about music and theatre since 1981 in more than 30 publications, including for Fairfax Media since 1993. He is also a playwright, author, poet, librettist, drummer and winner of the 2017 Walkley Arts Journalism Award
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