Ensemble Theatre, Sydney
May 12, 2018

Born in Liverpool in the UK, Willy Russell made his mark on British theatre in the 1980s with plays such as Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, and musicals like Blood Brothers, by putting down-to-earth, working class people on stage and giving them a voice, particularly women.

Shirley Valentine is a monologue by a 42-year old, Liverpudlian housewife who wonders how her life has become so depressingly narrow and dull. It opened in Liverpool in 1986. Two years later it moved to the West End where Pauline Collins starred in a production directed by Simon Callow. In 1989, Collins immortalised the character in a film based on the play.

Sharon Millerchip. Photograph © Anna Kucera

Mark Kilmurry, Artistic Director of Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre, has been wanting to direct the play for five or more years with Sharon Millerchip as Shirley. When he first approached her, she was taking some time out from acting and said, ‘no’. But instead of offering it to someone else, he decided to wait. For the next few years, he kept returning to see if she was ready until finally she agreed.

You can see why Kilmurry decided to wait. Returning to the stage for the first time since 2013 (when she starred in another solo play, Joanna Murray-Smith’s Bombshells for the Ensemble) Millerchip is perfect in the role. We believe in her, ache for her, root for her and share the new optimism Shirley finally finds, leaving the theatre on an emotional high.

The play begins in Shirley’s kitchen where she is cooking chips and fried egg for her husband – who expects dinner to be on the table when he gets home and was expecting mince, given that it is a Thursday. Sipping on a glass or two of Riesling, and talking to the wall, Shirley wonders how her life has ended up like this. “Why is it there’s all this unused life?” she asks. Sharing a few stories, she explains that a friend has offered her a free, two-week holiday in Greece. Three weeks later, she is ready to leave but instead of telling her husband, she is leaving him a note.

The second act is set on the Greek island where Shirley is having a good time on her own and finding her own holiday romance, having been abandoned by her friend who met a man on the plane there. Suddenly, life is surprisingly grand.

Sharon Millerchip. Photograph © Anna Kucera

Designer Simone Romaniuk gives us a faithful version of Shirley’s kitchen and a slightly more glamorised set for the idyllic Greek Island with a large postcard at the back, a stone wall, plants and a sunbed.

Beautifully directed by Kilmurry, Millerchip is a complete delight as Shirley. She is funny, self-deprecating, observant and optimistic. She breaks your heart, she makes you laugh, and she knows what’s what. If her holiday affair quickly dissolves, the minute she is gone, no matter. “The only holiday romance I’ve had is with myself,” she says. She also does a solid job with the Liverpudlian accent (dialect coach Amy Hume).

Life may have changed since Shirley Valentine first premiered, but the play still strikes a real chord, and with Millerchip finding the truth in each and every little moment it’s impossible not to be enchanted and moved.

Shirley Valentine plays at the Ensemble Theatre, Sydney until June 9



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