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Sydney Review - Ensemble Theatre’s Shirley Valentine: funny and emotive story

Sharon Millerchip as Shirley Valentine. Photo by Anna Kuchera

Shirley Valentine

By Willy Russell

An Ensemble Theatre production

Directed by Mark Kilmurry

Ensemble Theatre

78 McDougall Street, Kirribilli

Season: May 3 – June 9. Bookings: or (02) 9929 0644

Almost everyone I know has seen or heard of Shirley Valentine – The Movie. few had seen the stage version, so I feel especially privileged to have attended the opening night at the wonderful Ensemble Theatre at Kirribilli.

Mark Kilmurry, the Director has put together a superb interpretation of this Willy Russell play. Being a monologue, he had to be able to keep an audience captivated and interested through the one hour and forty-minute presentation. Starting with a terrific script and plot, Mark had only three scenes over two acts in which to maintain our interest in Shirley’s vocal dissection of her dismal life.

He managed this by keeping Shirley actively moving around her kitchen set (and later the Greek Taverna) and using everyday props to create a link with the audience. Bringing her close to the audience at critical emotional moments made it feel as if we were ‘one-on-one’ with Shirley. Her monologue was certainly not monotonous.

So, who is Shirley Valentine? Poor Shirley is a 42-year-old housewife in Liverpool, England. She has raised a son and daughter who have grown up and now take her for granted with little loving involvement. Her husband Joe is a well-intentioned hard-working man but the ‘fun’ side of him has disappeared as the daily boring routines have become the norm. There is no spark in the marriage anymore. As Shirley laments “Marriage is like the Middle East, isn’t it? There’s no solution.”

Her story is one of self-discovery and action and the writer references Christopher Columbus several times to reinforce this theme. Unlike Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady who transforms herself from a cockney slum-girl to well-spoken society lady, Shirley Valentine is on a voyage of self-actualisation. Having identified and admitting to her meaningless, dreary existence, she finds an opportunity to live again and pursues her simple dream “to drink a glass of wine, sitting by the sea, watching the sun go down.”

Shirley Valentine is such a likable character. Her self-deprecating sense of humour, her logical rationale in analysing her problems and her willingness to not take things too seriously make her appealing to our Australian way of life. So, to have Sharon Millerchip take on this role is a master-stroke.

Sharon conveys Shirley’s personality so well. The character is believable and exudes warmth immediately. We want to get to know Shirley because we can empathise with her. The audience are with her as we see her courage emerge and she takes the steps to greater fulfilment.

Sharon Millerchip uses all her resources to fill this role. She has the Liverpudlian accent sufficiently softened so we can understand her; her facial expressions demonstrate her sincerity and her general demeanour shows how she ‘gets’ what Shirley is all about.

There are two inanimate characters in this monologue, ‘Wall’ and ‘Rock’. Without them, Shirley’s inner-most thoughts may not have been so easily shared. And I suspect that we all have our own ‘wall’ and ‘rock’ to rely on at times.

One can’t ignore the staging of this production. Two simple sets, a kitchen in a suburban Liverpool terrace house and a Greek taverna. I felt that the kitchen might have been displayed in a more depressing manner in order to highlight the wonderful colour and lighting of the Greek taverna. A gigantic postcard was an ideal backdrop in the Greek scene.

I also liked the use of old radio commercials from Liverpool to help facilitate the scene change in Act 1.

Shirley Valentine is a heart-warming, funny, and emotive story. This production encapsulates all that and more. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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