Willy Russell’s late 1980s play has been overshadowed to a large extent by Lewis Gilbert’s film version starring Pauline Collins, which opens out the monologue and gives flesh to all the characters Shirley describes from the snooty schoolmate Marjorie Majors (who ends up a hooker) to the Greek taverna-owner Costas who insists he doesn’t want to “make fuck” with Shirley. Based on a stage original, Glen Walford’s production offered listeners the chance to reappraise Russell’s original text, and the opportunities it provides for a leading actress to command the attention.
Meera Syal is a talented performer in all media – stage, radio and television; in the role of Shirley she had great fun impersonating the characters who come into and out of the Liverpool housewife’s life. Occasionally her Liverpudlian accent wavered (some of the vowels had a distinct RP echo), but otherwise she thoroughly enjoyed herself portraying Shirley’s character development from downtrodden housewife to contented expat, waiting eagerly outside Costas’ taverna on a gorgeous evening for her husband Joe to come. At this point we shared her sense of triumph, expressed through the use of multiple stresses.
At the same time I reflected more critically on whether Shirley Valentine accurately dramatizes female experiences. It is full of good one-liners, while affirming the idea that women should be true to their instincts rather than conforming to the social expectations placed on them by their male partners. What the play does not admit is that women think differently from men: their life-choices are not restricted either to freedom or conformity, but can encompass both. Henry James understood this concept in his novel Portrait of a Lady, where Isabel Archer accepts her fate in a loveless marriage to Gilbert Osmond, yet retains the capacity to think and react in ways her husband cannot conceive. She enjoys the kind of freedom that resists male classification. The same also applies to Shirley Valentine; in her one-way conversations with the kitchen wall or the rock on the Greek island, she achieves the kind of liberation from patriarchal convention that gives her the strength to continue, and which neither Joe nor Costas can suppress. What I am trying to say is that the feelgood ending of Shirley Valentine is actually unnecessary; Shirley will always elude male attempts to control her, irrespective of the environment she is placed in.