With the permission of playwright Willy Russell, Mina Anwar has tweaked the script of his 1986 play Shirley Valentine to re-set the action in the Accrington of her childhood. This is arguably why her performance as Shirley – and the production as a whole – feels so believable and authentic.
Though young Shirley Valentine had high hopes and a rebellious streak, her life as Joe Bradshaw’s wife has become as dull and uninspiring as the magnolia walls of her functional kitchen. Only the butterfly design on Shirley’s jumper hints at her impending metamorphosis from tired housewife to “marvellous, brave, living woman”.
Anwar is incredibly relatable as Shirley. The strange conceit of talking to the wall is rapidly forgotten as the audience is taken into her confidence.
Her Shirley is great company; she’s clever, funny and an astute observer of others. Through her engaging storytelling, Anwar conjures up a much larger cast of characters including Shirley’s old school friend, Marjorie Majors, and Greek lothario, Costas.
Lotte Wakeham’s direction adds delicate touches to Anwar’s naturally humorous delivery while subtle design elements gently enhance the narrative. In the first half, Su Newell’s kitchen set is naturalistic enough to cook egg and chips, whereas the Greek island setting of the second half is presented as an idealised 2D image. This simplicity works.
Photos of Accrington appear in the foyer and the soundtrack playing in the auditorium could conceivably feature Shirley’s favourite tunes. The Octagon’s production successfully delineates Shirley Valentine’s world and skilfully draws the audience into it.