Shirley Valentine/Educating Rita, Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Feminism with lashings of fun
Tuesday 13 April 2010
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)
After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violencefilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 'Alien thigh bone' on Mars: Excitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
- 2 Jeremy Clarkson 'sees no problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC
- 3 Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world'
- 4 London restaurant 34 creates champagne glass modelled on Kate Moss’ left breast
- 5 ALS ice bucket challenge co-founder Corey Griffin drowns, aged 27
Jeremy Clarkson 'sees no problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC
Lucy, film review: Scarlett Johansson will blow your mind in Luc Besson's complex thriller
Miley Cyrus concert banned on morality grounds in the Dominican Republic
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
American film board gives gay film Love Is Strange R-rating despite no sex or violence
Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world'
Scottish independence: English people overwhelmingly want Scotland to stay in the UK
Isis threat: Cameron wants an alliance with Iran
Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head
Bin bag full of cats' heads discovered near Manchester's Curry Mile
Disgusting, frustrating, but intriguing: how the country really feels about its politicians