Sheridan Smith and Shirley Valentine: it’s a match made in theatre heaven. Willy Russell’s 1986 one-woman play is a beloved British classic; Smith is a national treasure. It sounds like it should work, and it really, really does. From her sly confidences right down to her comfy shoes, Smith conjures the kind of battled-hardened but optimistic woman who might live just down the street – a mother and a wife, who beneath the quips and anecdotes, is no longer quite sure who she is. At times, it’s as though she’s delivering a rapid-fire comedy set, at others, an elegy to missed potential. Smith looks so at home on stage – and with record-breaking advance box office takings and an extended 15-week run, I suspect she could take up permanent residence in the West End if she wanted to.
Russell’s warm, wistful play about a fortysomething Liverpudlian housewife who dreams of travelling the world is a proven crowd-pleaser. There was a hit 1989 film adaptation, and, as a character, Shirley is easy to love, meeting life’s disappointments with wise cracks and funny stories. But the part proves to be the perfect showcase for Smith’s talents, marrying her knack for nuance with her relish for a funny line, all threaded through with her innate likability. It’s an early contender for the best performance of the year.
From the moment she walks on stage, Smith builds a bond with the audience, melting the fourth wall away with a smile. Shirley cheerily chats away as though she’s gossiping with a friend as she makes dinner for her grumpy husband Joe; if she serves his tea late, she reminds him that it “doesn’t mean the pound has collapsed”. At one point, between cooking his egg and chips, she tells us, matter of fact, “he says he loves me – he doesn’t”. She longs to travel and wonders how her life got so small, until her feminist friend Jane – who thinks “all men are potential rapists, even the pope” – buys her a ticket for two weeks in Greece. She fears that both she and Joe will struggle to fend for themselves, but gathers her courage and gets on the plane, and so begins her search for a second chance at life.
Russell captures something painfully authentic and moving in his portrait of a woman who has become so ignored that she’s lost all self-consciousness, nattering away even if no one is listening. There are brilliant moments of comedy that sometimes bring the house down: Shirley’s commentary on her daughter’s generation discovering the clitoris, and her anecdote about her son’s dad-inspired ad-libbing in a school nativity play (“Full up? But we’ve booked!”). But it’s Smith’s ability to draw out the tragic elements of Shirley’s story, before building a portrait of resilience, that makes this performance so special. The script occasionally overdoes the profundity – “most of us die long before we’re dead” – but Smith still finds the pathos.
Matthew Dunster’s unfussy production knows that this is the Sheridan show, and allows her performance to take centre stage. The set is simple, an ordinary-looking kitchen for the first act, and an even sparser beach scene in the second – although, admittedly, the glowing fluorescent backdrop of act two is a bit of an assault on the eyes. Following a spray tan at the interval, Smith at times looks like she might blend into it.
What we are really here to see, though, is a performer of rare gifts at the top of her game. After a few so-so TV projects, it’s a joy to see Smith back on stage, where she shines so brightly. She already has two Olivier awards to her name; a third seems a certainty. Start engraving the trophy.
Duke of York’s Theatre, until 3 June
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