Shirley Valentine Proves Sheridan Smith Is Our Funniest Star
“I’m going to Greece for the sex — sex for breakfast, sex for dinner, sex for tea and sex for supper!” shrieks Sheridan Smith as Shirley Valentine in this knowingly playful revival.
The same age as Shirley, Smith performs this midlife monologue with heart-catching charm (“It’s like theMiddle East, there are no solutions”) and this classy production exhibits real affection. Smith is disarmingly good.
Like a wonky Samuel Beckett character, Shirley’s most responsive confidante is ‘wall’. And later a rock.
In these circumstances, any change could only be an improvement. Things really get going towards the end of act 1 as she slams the door on her marriage and sets out into the future.
Willy Russell, author of Educating Rita and Blood Brothers, once said of the latter that it was for people who don’t like musicals. Shirley Valentine is a play for people who don’t like plays, I think.
It’s entirely engaging and brilliant.
Anyway, fizzing Shirley heads for Greece where she blossoms like a flower in the sun, always playing directly to gallery. A lovely long bask in Smith’s maturing talent.
Structurally, this play is pretty much a music hall stand-up, directed with efficiency by Matthew Dunster. His production shrewdly offsets Paul Wills’ monochrome kitchen designs with pastel costumes and gorgeous beams of Mediterranean lighting designs by Lucy Carter.
Fortunately, Smith more than delivers the goods in this swift-moving show about a woman who catches a glimpse of the life she could be living. Playfully cooking chips and egg, Shirley reveals her innermost thoughts to us, thereby endearing herself artlessly to the audience.
“Why do we get all these feelings and dreams and thoughts if they can’t be used?”, Smith says out loud – the power lies in its honesty.
Shirley’s ability to transcend the limitations of the class system is a camp joy to behold: as she conclusively tells us at the play’s end, she is now free to make her own life choices. Of course, women have moved on since it was written. Today, they know they have choices but that was only dawning on people like Shirley back then.
Reviews have been correctly brilliant. An encouraging sign that we as a community can accept the fact that they don’t make ‘em like they used to. Is this what civilised society looks like? Perhaps.
It seems to me that Russell is a writer of genuine nobility, with a rare gift and wit for humanity. (Although The Stage did label the production ‘well-worn’, but Smith is quite literally above average when it comes to the whole being-a- performer and transcending the material thing, so I’m not sure if this really proves whatever point it is I’m trying to make.)
West End Producer David Pugh’s production is a love letter to live theatre – breaking the Duke Of York’s box office record for advance bookings totalling £4million in the process – and entertaining as hell.
During act 2 on the opening night, Smith accidentally knocked a wine glass prop onto the stage.
Her knowing composure, and ability to stay in character during the hiccup, was astonishing reminding everyone she is, by a distance, the funniest actor in the West End right now.
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
And if she hadn’t been awarded an OBE already, I’d be starting a petition.
Shirley Valentine runs at the Duke Of York’s Theatre, London until 3 June 2023.