I once interviewed the Liverpool poet Brian Patten in which he recounted a tale about skiving off gym class. “I’ll write you a poem instead Sir” was his cheeky proposal to the PE Teacher, and was excused. In the D stream of his local secondary modern, “sagging” off school to visit the Cavern club, Willy Russell’s thoughts of becoming a writer collided with the thought “don’t be a dickhead”.
The two would meet at Patten’s poetry night at the Green Moose, later going on to collaborate, becoming in their own right central figures in the great flowering of vernacular art in the Liverpool of 60s and 70s, which was as much at odds with the academy and its formal restraints as it was with the metropole.
The pop poets cultivated unpretentiousness as an art, and this is precisely the territory of Shirley Valentine, Russell’s most adept display of the “fearlessness of language” which he once cited as a facility native to his home city. Shirley Bradshaw (as her married name now has her) appears on stage as a lively and entertaining presence, brimming with a gentle forthright intelligence and a slew of witty anecdotes which she delivers with asides to the kitchen wall (“Well what’s wrong with that? There’s a woman three doors down talks to her microwave. Talking to a microwave! Wall, what’s the world coming to?”)
Perpetually at home cooking for her tired and ungrateful husband, she is forever wondering where her old self, who used to jump off rooftops barefoot, has disappeared to. When the offer of a trip to Greece throws up a chance for change, she contemplates putting down the potato peeler and grabbing it with both hands.
Valentine is a simple play, Shirley a straightforward character to relate to. Unlike Educating Rita, running as a double bill at the same theatre, the audience is never offered a moment of superiority over its protagonist, to dismantle or ironise, or be generally unsettled by. Instead we are charmed repeatedly over the head by Shirley’s easygoing humour and outspoken honesty. This is a play in which Russell, in his own words, “fights to win over the audience”, bringing to the battle much of the British comedy of the era: a Bennett talking head here, a Smith & Jones or Curtis and Elton there.
Having been won over by lines such as, “I think sex is like Sainsbury’s, you know, overrated. Just a lot of pushing and shoving and you still come out with very little at the end”, we find ourselves urging Shirley toward a better life, which in turn leads us seamlessly to matters of social structure. Shirley Valentine is a deeply humane sketch of the limits and horizons that class and gender impose on us. It is invested with such tender workmanship that we always feel the full three dimensions of a human life existing at those points of closure. There is a gentle realism to the way in which the personal and political collide in Shirley, her experiences to the fore, her symbolic strength never diminished or cheapened by Russell’s firm political agenda.
In the central role Meera Syal cuts a statesmanlike swathe through the two-act monologue, bequeathing her considerable comic talents to the one-liners and anecdotes. If she has one weakness it’s the grand aspect of the performance, slightly overblowing Shirley’s sense of integrity, at the expense of her vulnerability, and more crucially her ordinariness. If there was ever any thought to freshen and sharpen the political dimension of the play by the casting a British Asian actor, it’s quickly forgotten. The celebrity Meera Syal MBE appears to an audience so successfully “beyond race” that any new articulations of outsiderness are forgone.
It’s not unreasonable to presume that Shirley’s son Brian, who has run off to a squat to become a poet, is named after Patten. The other two poets of the Liverpool triumvirate, McGough and Henri, are namechecked as young Brian’s contemporaries, and stand out as markers of the energy that Shirley’s generation and gender are missing. “They invented sex, didn’t they?” says Valentine affectionately, before contemplating her own journey to the lost Greek island of “Klitoris”.
Aged 42 in 1986, Shirley Valentine‘s anachronisms are showing a bit in this revival, the comedy feels less immediate, and thanks to the advances made by the women’s movement, the social context of female isolation and sexual inhibition is slightly more remote than it once was. But like picking up a copy of The Mersey Sound, there is still a freshness and vitality there. Shirley’s refusal of victimhood, her conviviality, her message of tender and honest transformation, ring clearly through 21st century Britain. In many ways this intriguing revival is a reminder of a “national ordinary” beyond reality television. Something we can relate to. As much as we are all willing her to go, and stay on that island; Shirley Valentine’s certainly not all Greek to us.
Read the review of the Menier Chocolate Factory revival of Educating Rita