“Shirley Valentine,” Long Wharf Theatre Stage II
The shabby, dimly-lit, claustrophobic Liverpool kitchen, tightly enclosed in a small space, says it all. This is home territory for Shirley of “Shirley Valentine,” and we know that this heroine just has to escape.
Set designer Frank Alberino has cleverly solved the problem of creating a small room on a broad stage, confining his set to a frame within a frame. And when Alberino, in the second act, changes Shirley’s locale from Liverpool to Greece, from a gray world to a sun-washed beach, from a small space to the broad sweep of the stage, the effect is dazzling.
Thus the set design for Willy Russell’s play. But if the critical acclaim goes directly, and first, to Alberino’s stage set, something must be wrong. And indeed this Long Wharf production, in other respects, falters in its tracks.
What is wrong? Surely Willy Russell creates a likeable, vulnerable character, as Shirley confides all to her audience. She has an earthy, homespun appeal. And it is clear from the beginning that all will be well with Shirley—eventually. It is a feel-good play that understandably has been a perennial favorite for years.
But now there is a problem. Is it that the show’s theme has become passé? A middle-aged woman is trapped in a joyless marriage, but fearful to venture outside. Her children are grown, and she certainly could pursue a career, travel, new directions. Yet she does not. In this liberated era of the western world, with equal opportunity and feminist independence, it is hard to buy this story.
But, secondly, there is the performance itself. The eminent actress Judith Ivey lets Shirley down. For starters, her Liverpool accent—while it may be accurate—does not ring true. And she is often difficult to understand, with Russell’s best lines lost in transition. Secondly, it is a soft, fuzzy performance. Ivey never explores the dark corners of Shirley’s world nor brings out the sharp poignancy of her situation. Nor, when she comes out of that kitchen and enters a new world, does Ivey reach the ecstatic heights suggested in the script.
In short, this is indeed a ho-hum “Shirley Valentine.” Perhaps it is time for Shirley, and the rest of us, to move on.
This review also appears in the Connecticut Post and nytheaterscene.com