REVIEW: Shirley Valentine

It is an emotional night as I take my seat in Belfast's Lyric Theatre for Shirley Valentine. Directed by Patrick J O'Reilly, and starring Tara Lynne O'Neill of Derry Girls fame, the production is, like writer Willy Russell's Educating Rita and Blood Brothers, bright and breezy but also thoughtful and thematic - the kind of show that the production’s assistant director, the late Julie Maxwell, would have treasured.
Memories of not only Maxwell and her contribution to the stage but also her previous collaboration with O’Neill, Me, Mum and Dusty Springfield, hang heavily over us - both one-woman shows are, in a sense, revelatory tales of reality and fantasy, the art of learning not to live through visions of what we want life to be, or what it should be, but what it is.
O'Neill, as we are reminded, is a special kind of actress – her ageless, charming features and sly-yet-warm expressions are the sort which envelop an audience and enrapture one's attention over a long period of time. In short, perfect for a simple-yet-complicated individual like Shirley Valentine - she of simple dreams in a complicated lifestyle.
Domestication and our heroine are not a natural fit. The enclosed walls and clutter on Paul Keogan's impressive set are all she has for company, and, with her family as good as non-existent, she's basically talking to the wall. A wall she is frightened of life beyond. It's something we all identify with – who isn't scared of leaving their comfort zone?
Stability is essential, but it also requires evolution, otherwise, before you know it, what you thought was the right kind of stability turns wrong. It's why the humour, at least in act one, is virtually relentless – as with the Lyric's Educating Rita, a unique Belfast slant is placed on Russell's script, ensuring the laughter is as relatable as it is raucous. (That's without going into some rather eye-popping disco dancing.)
The second act is transitional. Having quite literally knocked down the walls of the set and gone on holiday, a once-burdened Shirley now beams. No longer will she feed off scraps – she will show off and smile with the weight off her shoulders, and so will we. I get the impression from watching this that, while life may be too short, so are periods of rest, and if we can't turn off, or at least tone ourselves down a little, we can be unbearably hyperactive. This is when O'Reilly and O'Neill know to pause and explore the value of a connection, even if it's fleeting - how, when you think you meet the right person, everything you say has additional meaning and the right words leave your mouth at the right time. The manner in which O'Neill encompasses these feelings as Shirley meets her Greek, er, God (her perception, not ours!) is a joy.
It truly amazes me how Russell’s work, especially in such gifted hands, can be so edifying and entertaining. Behind Shirley's smile we contemplate, as we must, the perils of over-romanticism and how it is so easy to pin one's entire hopes on anything or anyone so superficially pleasing. And it's not necessarily that the object of one's affection is, or may be, a fake – it’s just that we often find ourselves in danger of putting so much time or energy into who or what we desire and expect, rather than who or what is, to the point of possible heart burn. That, quite simply, is the truth beneath the beauty. With that in mind, Shirley Valentine is not only about life and living, but remembering to look after oneself, and how much value there is in seeing and recognising exactly who you are. It is indeed right to dare to dream, but, as a famous fictional wizard put it, it simply does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.

Simon Fallaha

Shirley Valentine runs in Belfast's Lyric Theatre until October 5. Photography by Johnny Frazer.

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