The Two Faces of Shirley

Review by Sean McQuaid

Shirley Valentine
Review | by Sean McQuaid
Victoria Playhouse, July 8, 2023

Pondering Victoria Playhouse’s newly remounted run of the 1986 romantic dramedy Shirley Valentine, my word-association-prone brain flashes back to an old Elvis Costello lyric from his 1977 curio “Alison,” where the song’s jaded narrator says he’s not going to get too sentimental “like those other sticky valentines.” 

Johanna Nutter plays Shirley Valentine
[photo by Mostafa Alizadegan]

The play’s Shirley feels like both a rejection and realization of Costello’s lyrics. She’s unsentimental about some stuff, ultimately eager to discard everything and everyone that’s defined her life up to this point; but she does develop a sentimentally romantic concept of herself, or at least an idealized image of the happier woman she once was and yearns to be again. She calls that woman Shirley Valentine, her long-ago maiden name. 

As the play begins, she’s technically Shirley Bradshaw, a middle-aged British housewife, so bored and lonely that she literally talks to the wall about everything, including her emotionally distant husband Joe (who seems to regard her as little more than his maid and cook), their problematic grown children, and her feminist friend Jane, who buys Shirley a ticket to Greece to join her on a two-week vacation. The trip is a game-changer for Shirley, who is soon tempted to make her transformative vacation permanent. 

This one-woman, two-act play by Willy Russell – basically a block of monologues by Shirley about her life – was a big hit in the 1980s and oft-revived since. Victoria’s production of it back in 2008 starred Johanna Nutter, hired as the Playhouse’s artistic director in 2022. The 2023 revival directed by Robert Tsonos stars Nutter as well, wryly observing in publicity materials that she is now “finally old enough” for the role. 

I was living out west when Nutter’s Shirley first graced Victoria, so it’s a brand-new show for me. Its pedigree was encouraging, based in part on great shows I’d seen last summer: Watermark Theatre’s Educating Rita (another Russell play about a working-class woman broadening her horizons), and Victoria’s Beyond the Sea starring Nutter. 

As a Russell/Nutter combo, Victoria’s 2023 Shirley Valentine sounded like surefire stuff; but I ultimately liked it rather than loved it, due largely to the script. There’s wit and pathos, and Russell’s Shirley is charming and often sympathetic; but a monologue’s a trickier thing to sustain than a dialogue, and this one drags a wee bit in spots. 

The story also doesn’t seem to fully own or reckon with the dark side of its main character’s journey, perhaps understandably since it’s all from Shirley’s perspective. The play paints this mostly in shades of you-go-girl affirmation, and an argument can certainly be made that Shirley’s earned some latitude after years of dreary domestic servitude; but some aspects of her Greek adventure are sufficiently selfish or reckless to add a slightly sour undercurrent to the character’s sweet success. 

Misgivings aside, it’s a smart, humane and often amusing play with some worthwhile thoughts about living life to the fullest, and Nutter is perfect as Shirley – warm, genuine, likeable and funny, with enough range to capture both the bleak Shirley Bradshaw and the brighter Shirley Valentine. Nutter’s a radiant joy to watch in Greek holiday mode, as if character and actor are synching up on some quantum level, each living her best life. 

Apart from Nutter, the show’s other MVP is the late W. Scott MacConnell. The longtime Victoria Playhouse set designer passed away in April, but his showy 2008 Shirley Valentine set design is back for this production, a revolving structure with Shirley’s kitchen on the front and a Greek beach on the back. Like Shirley herself, it’s an appealing, dual-sided creation filled with more than meets the eye.