Shirley Valentine/Educating Rita, Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Feminism with lashings of fun
The disappearing case of Willy Russell is one of the mysteries and frustrations of the British theatre. A revival on the same bill of two of his best known plays – Shirley Valentine dates from 1986, Educating Rita, an RSC commission, from 1980 – renowned for entertaining film versions starring Pauline Collins and Julie Walters, is a chill reminder that the man who also wrote book, lyrics and music for the perennial Blood Brothers hasn't written a new stage play since.
You can hardly complain, though, when you meet a performance as good as that of Meera Syal as Shirley, finding her life beyond the kitchen wall on a Greek island where the boatman kisses her stretch marks and she learns how to tap into all that life that's lying around unused.
Russell was always a gifted folk dramatist with a lovely turn of phrase and a rare ability to express working class aspirations without sounding middle class or patronising. Which is why the audience turning up at the Menier might not be the ideal one. Metropolitan sophisticates don't need telling about the virtues of social mobility and self-improvement, do we?
But it's the way that he writes so truthfully and wittily about his scouse ladies that makes these short plays such bubbles of delight. And Meera Syal nails Shirley with a wonderfully moving grace and affection, taking us through her catch-ups with Marjorie Majors in the Adelphi Hotel (Marjorie's a hooker, not an air hostess, it turns out) and her condescending neighbour Gillian (who begrudges her the breath to speak with) while cooking her dumb husband's egg and chips for his tea.
Laid out on the Greek beach, Shirley has exchanged her confessional kitchen wall – where she's a sort of Saint Joan of the fitted units, evoking her voices to prove she's still alive – for the uncomplicated granite of a sympathetic rock. The brilliance of the monologue lies in this idea that Shirley can only communicate by not communicating, ie chattering on to herself, or the rock.
And, as the Bee Gees' song has it, it's all about staying alive, or coming alive in a fuller way, that gives Shirley's chat its power and resonance, not just the fact that she had sex with old Costas, though that helped things along. Syal's acting, beautifully pointed and measured in Glen Walford's production, delivers a perfectly structured human comedy.
The movie opened out a story that belongs in Shirley's head, and the intimacy of the theatre; the encounter in Educating Rita between a 29-year-old hairdresser and a washed-up tutor and failed poet, on the other hand, benefited big time from the film treatment, and made it the budding romcom the play is bursting to be and still feels like within the confines of its short, snappy scenes.
Director Jeremy Sams has trimmed and tightened the piece, not always to its advantage, but he's also ensured two deft and vividly articulated performances from Larry Lamb as the lost tutor – much more than a mere sounding board; a walking example of his own mixed-up approach to life and literature – and Laura Dos Santos as Rita. She recently played the same role on BBC Radio opposite Bill Nighy.
Both plays are given a detailed, full value design by Peter McKintosh and restore a much-missed voice of humanity and common sense to our stage. If feminism meant anything at all in the fringe theatre of the 1980s, it meant these two plays by a male dramatist who, rather like David Hare, loves women so much because he understands them so well. And you could imagine a different, epic triple bill altogether – of Educating Rita, David Mamet's Oleanna (these two have been paired before) in repertoire with Hare's own Skylight: about time to bring that one on, I think.
To 8 May (020 7907 7060; Menierchocolatefactory.com)
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