Shirley Valentine is a one-woman show about a housewife with grown-up children, who is bought a ticket for a two-week holiday to Greece. Written in 1986 and very definitely set in the mid-80s, it was made into a (fantastic) film in 1989. I’m delighted that it’s still around, and that this new tour is happening, not least because Jodie Prenger is so very likeable as Shirley. She channels the spirit of your best friend’s mum, sitting at the kitchen table with a glass of wine, peeling potatoes and telling you stories about what she was like at school. Look, I love these kinds of occasion. They’re underrepresented and sorely underrated – funny, and interesting, and insightful. During the interval, I sneak out to text my mum, “Wish you were here.”
One-man (or indeed one-woman) shows are notoriously difficult to keep at high-energy, but Prenger manages it with apparent ease. Only the wider variety of accents in the second half give it away that this takes far more skill than is obvious. It’s great to see a comic show alongside a good audience who is audibly enjoying themselves (at one point, she notes that a robe is from “Liberty’s of London” – the whole audience goes “oooh!” and promptly laughs at themselves), but I can’t imagine an audience that Prenger might fail to win over.
Into the second half, Shirley Valentine takes a turn from the realistic towards the unashamed wish fulfilment, as the set gets a bit more abstract, and Shirley herself changes location. Amy Yardley’s set design of Shirley’s kitchen is extremely detailed (I’m reliably informed that the hob is in fact real, and that the front few rows could smell the egg and chips as she made them onstage), which makes the beach-approximation of the final act almost a disappointment. It’s here also that the message of Shirley Valentine is really hit home: that so many people – women and men – don’t get to feel comfortable with themselves, or have adventures, either through fear or sheer inertia. By rights, it ought to be trite. It is to director Glen Walford’s credit that it isn’t.
And then, even as I’m rooting for Shirley to get her happy ending, there’s something bittersweet about it happening. Is it because it feels unlikely? Maybe, but I think I’m just a little melancholy for the women that Shirley Valentine resonates with. I’ll say this for Willy Russell: I like his priorities. In particular, I like his women – middle aged women who try hard and deserve better than they get. And most of all, I like that he gives them the goodness they deserve.
Shirley Valentine runs until Saturday 3rd June at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh.