Willy Russell's scabrous Scousers, Shirley Valentine (Saint Joan of the fitted kitchen units, with all her nosy-neighbour voices) and hairdresser Rita of the Open University, are still going strong after a quarter of a century. They are now as engraved in the national consciousness as Maggie May, resilient streetwalker of the Liverpool docks, or the battling socialist MP Bessie Braddock. This Menier Chocolate Factory transfer, for a summer season at the Trafalgar Studios, presents Russell's two plays in all their wit and vivacity.
Both Shirley and Rita make journeys into the unknown. Shirley goes to a Greek island for the excitement of "not knowing" and the climactic fulfilment of standing naked on a fishing boat over water "as deep as forever". Rita travels into the realms of drama and literature, goaded by her own Professor Higgins, the alcoholic tutor Frank.
Shirley is the star of her own monodrama, her gabbing made theatrical in a stream of stories and impersonations that are rooted in essential loneliness and reaction against domestic frustration. Meera Syal delivers a performance as moving and funny as any on the London stage.
The traffic of Educating Rita is now definitely two-way, and not just because the director, Jeremy Sams, has restored the cuts he made to the 90-minute Menier version. Along with the rhythms of the play, Sams and Tim Pigott-Smith, who plays Frank, have restored the dramatic tension, the concern Rita feels for her tutor and the bitterness of their separation.
There is something profound in Shirley's observation that most of us die before we are dead. To make the best of our lives, we have to take action. Most of us do not and it is the poignancy of this that makes these plays so memorable and joyous.
To 30 October (0844 871 7632; Willyrussellseason.com)Reuse content