'Shirley Valentine' by Willy Russell
Now onstage at Port Hope's Capitol Theatre
Sam Moffatt. Pictured: Deborah Drakeford as Shirley Valentine
Willy Russell’s ‘Shirley Valentine’, the two-hour one-woman show, recently opened Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre 2023 season. Nearly thirty-five years since the original London production premiere, the play centers around 42-year-old Shirley Valentine (Deborah Drakeford) who’s stuck in a rut in her marriage. Sometimes she ends up talking to the kitchen walls to make up for the lack of communication with her husband, Joe. The two of them have two grown children now out of the house and living their own lives.
Shirley feels she has become a servant to her husband and adult children and wonders if there is more to life. As she fixes chips and eggs to go with her husband’s tea, Shirley lets us in on various things going on in her life. The biggest news? Her friend Jane has won two tickets in a contest to travel to Greece and wants Shirley to go with her. At first uncertain, she finally makes the choice, leaves a note on the kitchen cupboard, packs her bags, and flies off on a transforming holiday that will change her life.
I was puzzled at first by this choice to open Port Hope’s summer theatre season. There’s a sexist ‘80s feel to ‘Valentine’. On top of that, Shirley’s behaviour in Greece might also be considered foolhardy if she is trying to discover there’s more to her life than what she experiences right now.
But hold on.
The Capitol’s Artistic Director Rob Kempson is one astute man and knows what he’s doing. He hires the right people in the right position. He understands the audience. The appeal of ‘Shirley Valentine’ stems from its ‘80s roots and stares straight in the face of the current woke culture about what it means to be a woman today.
Kempson accomplished his goal on this one. Smartly, I will add.
Karen Ancheta directs with a compassionate understanding of the play’s universal messages and a savvy awareness of the ‘80s time frame. ‘Valentine’ speaks volumes about the celebration of womanhood even 35 years later. Real women from the ‘80s are like Shirley Valentine. They toil in the trenches of daily life, unlike some currently painted ‘woman face’ social media influencers who want us to buy what they claim to be. Real women dream, then come home and most likely put their own needs behind those of their sometimes-neglectful husbands and often suffer for it. We cheer for individuals like Shirley in the ‘80s who stand up and say: “No more.”
Thirty-five years ago, Willy Russell, a male, writes about the beauty of a real woman like Shirley Valentine. My friend Marg who accompanied me remarked on this as well. Shirley learns to like herself through her wounds and scars and doesn’t try to cover them up.
That’s what the play is all about.
Many around me were enjoying hearing Lyon Smith’s good choice of appropriate pre-show ‘80s music soundscape. As Costume and Set Designer, Jackie Chau holds the important task of giving the audience the credible look of the period.
She succeeds. Deborah Drakeford’s wig is very much the ‘80s look. The bright pastels she wears when waiting for Jane to pick her up are another reminder.
Additionally, Chau purposefully juxtaposes two set designs which reflect Shirley’s emotional frame of mind in each act. In the first act, there are subtle hints of an at-times dreary-looking fake oak kitchen that hasn’t changed over the years much like Shirley’s marriage. The brickwork on the back wall needs fixing. The kitchen walls look as if they are closing in. Sometimes Shirley must stretch to reach the cupboards high above. Although there can be comfort in knowing some things are as they should be, Shirley becomes bored with this mundane routine. Joe likes his tea being placed on the table as he comes in the door from work.
The open-air free-flowing second-act set design in Greece splendidly lit by Daniele Guevara beautifully reflects Shirley’s rational state of mind. That gorgeous choice of an aqua blue light colour works well combined with hearing the intoxicating sound of the ocean provided by designer Lyon Smith.
There’s space to move about. At one point, Shirley lies down on the sand and speaks to us. What I thought was a nice touch was the placing of seashells along the perimeter of the stage. The final tableau of the production involving light and sound is breathtaking as the play has been brought to its rightful conclusion.
Deborah Drakeford sparkles as Shirley Valentine and delivers a tour de force performance.
While telling the audience about the relationships she forms with others in Greece, Drakeford becomes that credible woman who learns to fall in love with the idea of living which is another message of the play. In the first act, Drakeford shows a definite tension in her physical stance in her home kitchen. Her emotional frame of mind runs the gamut from nervousness to excitement of the unknown like a giddy schoolgirl. Shirley knows this life has become mundane, but Drakeford wisely never allows her emotions to ramble out of control.
In the second act when the setting changes to Greece, Drakeford reveals a completely different Valentine. Her physical stance is serene while her spirit is calm. She presents as a relaxed woman in control of who she is and what she has done and doesn’t apologize for any of it.
Nor should she.
Drakeford sashays around in the kimono she wears with aplomb. She loves to sit silently at the edge of the ocean on a chair with a glass of wine, look out over the water, and breathe. Drakeford doesn’t make this moment at all theatrical. It’s all done as a matter of fact and naturally. It is the audience who marvels at the change.
Her comic sense of timing is superlative. In the first act, Drakeford’s delicious raunchy talk of a certain lady part ‘down there’ left those sitting around me in stitches of laughter (me included). (Side note: don’t bring the kids). What I also find fascinating about Drakeford’s work in the first scene of Act One? She actually makes eggs and chips and makes it all appear as a normal course of events in Shirley’s life.
And it’s all wonderful to watch and see this woman begin to love living once again.
Final Comments: Thirty-five years later, ‘Shirley Valentine’ remains as relevant as ever. Any concerns I first had about the play are gone. It’s charming to re-visit and so is Deborah Drakeford in the role.
Go see it.
Running time: approximately two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission.
‘Shirley Valentine’ runs until May 28 at Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre on the Mainstage, 20 Queen Street. For tickets, call the Box Office at (905) 885-1071 or visit www.capitoltheatre.com.
SHIRLEY VALENTINE by Willy Russell
Now onstage at Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre
Director: Karen Ancheta
Set and Costume Designer: Jackie Chau
Lighting Designer: Daniele Guevara
Sound Designer: Lyon Smith
Stage Manager: Charlene Saroyan
Performer: Deborah Drakeford