What on earth could be done with a new production of Shirley Valentine that has not already been done before? Cushioned by Willy Russell’s sharp, perceptive, tuned-in writing, the easy option would be to find a good actor and let the script do the rest. But, in the hands and imagination of Patrick J O’Reilly, whose directorial vision hinges on physical expression and a restless determination to go the extra performance mile, Oisín Kearney’s 1980s Belfastised version sings sweetly off a different song sheet.
The untimely death of assistant director Julie Maxwell brought heightened emotion to the rehearsal room and the stage. It is to the immense credit of the professional discipline of Tara Lynne O’Neill that she delivers, with irresistible brio, a vulnerable woman whose personal journey connects deeply at an individual level.
You couldn’t not love her as, meticulously choreographed by O’Reilly, she beats a familiar daily path around her cell-like kitchen, a domestic drudge, longing to cut loose and rediscover the spirited, mischievous girl she used to be.
O’Neill flawlessly navigates Russell’s incessant, self-deprecating humour, but beneath the gags and the funny stories lies desperation. The moment when she picks up her suitcase and heads for the door is captured in a splendidly unexpected piece of stagecraft.
The pace drops briefly at the start of the second act when, in the beautifully lit sunshine of Corfu, colour and romance return to her previously unused life. But it quickly picks up as this plucky everywoman character learns to love herself, celebrate her femininity and rediscover Shirley Valentine.