Shirley Valentine/Educating Rita, Menier Chocolate Factory, London

4.00

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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all