October 01, 1989

No Class Please, We’re British


Shirley Valentine
by Willy Russell

State Theatre Company/
Sydney Theatre Company
The Playhouse,

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Playwright Willy Russell not only touched the zeitgeist with his stage hit, Educating Rita, he also hit paydirt. The screen version launched Julie Walters as a performer with presence and showed there could be life after flab for Michael Caine. Essentially, Educating Rita was Pygmalion Revisited with just a smidge of feminism to keep it a la mode. On film, at least, Walters’ presentation of Rita was full of contradictions. A working class woman, Rita was clearly more intelligent than most of the privileged crania imbibing tertiary education around her. At the same time she was represented as graceless and gormless with Liverpool vowels stretched to a parodic twang that would make even Ringo Starr blush.

Russell may not have intended it but his liver bird had become an update of the Music Hall cockney, an embodiment of Upstairs Downstairs England, stoic, relentlessly chipper, and kept in line with a lot of Noble Savage bunkum. When Rita’s tutor pompously decides he has ruined her joie de vivre by offering her an education, it is not, as in Shaw, a rebuke to her society, it is as patronisingly deterministic as the treatment of the bushman in The Gods Must be Crazy.

Shirley Valentine is another of Willy Russell’s cheery souls. A full-length monologue, performed in London and New York by Pauline Collins, the play is about a Liverpool woman who at 42 is looking at the meaning of life. Shirley Valentine has become Shirley Bradshaw, mother of teenage ingrates, and, needless to say, married to Andy Capp. It is not hard to believe that he might be unimaginative, authoritarian and a lousy fuck, but the play takes a long time to get around to mentioning that he’s drawn the last short straw in Thatcher’s Britain as well. No wonder Russell’s plays do better in the West End than the kind of black stuff Alan Bleasdale writes. It must be a great relief to London audiences to find that the main problem for working class women is working class men.

The offer of a ticket to Greece gives the play its turning point as Shirley ponders the notion of an isle of one’s own. Not that she’s a feminist like her chum -“I don’t hate men” quips Shirley. (Has Russell been locked in a cupboard since 1950 ?)It is also not surprising that Shirley’s life improves greatly once she’s dipping her toes in the Aegean. In fact it’s such an obvious cure for personal angst and the side-effects of monetarism that I don’t know why we haven’t thought of it sooner.

Regretably, this play has been hailed because it offers what is called a strong woman’s role. The fact that it as about as hard-hitting as jam sponge doesn’t seem to have bothered too many. Especially when, for the Sydney Theatre Company production, director George Ogilvie and actor Julie Hamilton have proceeded to make a trifle of it.

Shirley Valentine is a woman in crisis. Her life is muck and she knows it. She spends her time actually talking to the wall. Instead of making this a sinister state of affairs, Julie Hamilton’s Shirley is a giddy addle-brain nattering to the wall as if it was Mr Squiggle. There are comic lines in the play but there is no need to perform it like a clown. When the desperation does come through, Ms Hamilton is invariably at the wrong end of the octave and the tears become merely pitiful, never terrifying or discomforting. This Shirley Valentine is just some poor cow at the other end of the universe.

The production is not helped by Kristian Fredrikson’s everything-that-opens-and-shuts set. I suppose Shirley’s kitchen has to be moronically tasteless (how else can she be tragic ?)but the trouble with the kind of stage naturalism that has her cooking chips in an Actual Crockpot is that you can’t help noticing that they are still half raw when she serves them. Then when a stage hand comes on to clean up like one of the shoemaker’s elves you do wonder whether theatrical conventions are getting a bit odd. The stylised set for Act 11, nicely lit by Nigel Levings, was a welcome relief, even if, on her entrance, Ms Hamilton mugged to the audience like Frankie Howerd.

Shirley Valentine is on the cusp of being an ill-considered, reactionary diversion, so it takes astute and disciplined choices in production to keep it on edge. Julie Hamilton’s performance has been widely admired (and doubtless many will find these objections incomprehensible) but she gives no centre or gravity to her character . Too often her vocal work becomes twittering and, with so much emphasis on the regional accent, hers seems to be the other side of Dundee much of the time. As for Costas, Shirley’s Greek lover -she does all the voices for him as well- I couldn’t work out whether he was Norwegian or Belgian. Again, the director and actor should have trusted their tale- after all, some of the most successful performances of the play were said to be when Willy Russell just sat and read the script on stage.

It is precisely because the theatre does need to present stronger images of our society, especially on the question of gender, that this production is such a grave disappointment. At one point in the play Shirley recalls a patronising remark from her friend- “What does she think I am,” she huffs in exasperation,”an old-age pensioner or a five year old child ?” She might well ask the same question of George Ogilvie and Julie Hamilton.

“No Class Please We’re British” The Adelaide Review, No.68, October, 1989, pp.26-7.

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