The Hamilton Spectator

Embracing the heart of liberated Liverpudli­an

Shauna Black’s Shirley Valentine will make you laugh, cry and be glad you are in the theatre

- GARY SMITH HAS WRITTEN ABOUT THEATRE AND DANCE FOR THE SPECTATOR FOR 40 YEARS, AS WELL AS FOR A VARIETY OF INTERNATIO­NAL PUBLICATIO­NS. GSMITH1@COGECO.CA GARY SMITH

When I talked with actress Shauna Black before rehearsals for Theatre Aquarius’s production of “Shirley Valentine” began, she had something so lucid, so cogent to say, I’m repeating it here.

“Man or woman, we all struggle with shame, self-worth, loneliness and what-ifs, getting older and more invisible, wanting to be seen, to be heard, not wanting to live a half-life. I hope the audience comes out of ‘Shirley Valentine’ cracked open a bit”

Well folks, call me cracked.

It’s 40 years since playwright Willy Russell wrote his heartfelt look at the way life tends to compromise us all. And Russell’s play, filled with humour, warmth, compassion and, yes, sadness, is as brilliant today as it was the day it opened in Manchester, England in 1986

Its message remains fresh and vibrant. And no, this play by a talented man isn’t really only a feminist look at life. It’s so much more. It’s about liberation, all sorts of it.

It’s about all that “left over life” we have to live. It’s about choices made, relationsh­ips that need mending, and mostly it’s about love, something that needs to be cared for.

As Shirley Valentine, 42, has a mid-life crisis in her lonely Liver- pool kitchen, she contemplat­es the courage it will take to walk away from her thoughtles­s daughter Mil- landra, her wastrel son Brian and her worn-out husband Joe.

He’s the guy who expects his egg and chips on the table on-time without a hug or kiss. He’s the guy who has lost whatever loving feel- ing brought him together with flirty Shirley all those years ago.

No wonder Shirley Valentine wonders who she is. Is she the girl her schoolmist­ress cruelly dubbed dumb all those years ago? Is she the girl Joe once loved and trotted home to, with more than egg and chips on his mind? Is she the girl who idolized school chum Marjorie Majors and longed to be just like her?

If she picks up her passport, her little suitcase with the sexy silk robe toffee-nosed old acquaintan­ce Jillian has given her for a possible Greek adventure, just how much will her life change? How desperate is she to be more, to find what’s left of Shirley Valentine, drinking Riesling and talking to her kitchen wall?

Russell’s play is so exquisite, so touching, so warm and human, you live every moment of it with dear Shirley. Her life becomes yours. All the people she speaks of are there on stage with her, though only actress Black lives Shirley’s story in front of our engaged hearts and minds.

Of course, we long for a happy ending, an epiphany that will offer hope for all that unused, leftover life Shirley talks about.

Without a remarkable actress as Russell’s ally in creating this world of liberation however, all would go for naught.

That’s why it’s so good that Theatre Aquarius has Black, an astute actress, who finds Russell’s engaging character. She’s a risk-taking performer. Her Shirley is so heartbreak­ingly vulnerable the character leaps off the stage, right into your heart. Black is the seventh actress I’ve seen play this demanding role and she happily finds some fresh new ways of exploring it, filling the spaces between Shirley’s aching hours with such powerful silence she forces you to sit up and wait for the next revelation.

Black never works too hard asking for our understand­ing and love. Everything about her Shirley is so natural you find it perfectly apt that she talks to the wall, pouring out her loneliness, her hunger to be loved, her need for something more.

Well, I loved her completely, though I’ve a few paltry cavils to mention. Perhaps it’s churlish to expect a better Liverpool accent. And I wish Black wouldn’t try to imitate the speech of so many of the other characters she talks about here. It works against the mood.

Thankfully, Black seems to trust Russell’s play completely. But I’m not so sure about director Tracey Flye’s need to inject distractin­g movement. Perhaps she worries too much about the nature of the play’s monologue format. In the second act, particular­ly, she has her Shirley posing awkwardly on a rocky ledge, hopping up and down a dangerous looking set of steps, sitting on the edge of a chair only to jump up seconds later and then, finally, she’s finishing the play like some goddess embracing life high above the stage deck.

Perhaps she’s trying to show the change in Shirley, but I believe something calmer would do that more effectivel­y. After all, it’s the words here that are important

Black is surrounded with some helpful accoutreme­nts in this Aquarius production. Painterly lighting from Logan Raju Cracknell bathes her in the warm, yet somehow shadowy desperatio­n of Scott Penner’s sterile Liverpool kitchen, with its lonely little table and chairs.

I wish, however, his Act 2 vision for Greece didn’t look like something out of a 1930s Hollywood film, all phoney steps and potted plants and ersatz fantasy. Ah well.

Will you love Shirley Valentine? I think so. It starts with a terrific play, coaxed to life by an actress who is at the very top of her game.

So, go see it. See Shauna Black inhabit the heart and soul of Shirley Valentine, that lovable liberated Liverpudli­an. If you don’t laugh, cry, and see yourself, even just a little, I’ll be very surprised.

 ?? DAHLIA KATZ PHOTOS ?? Black plays a demanding role as Shirley Valentine.
DAHLIA KATZ PHOTOS Black plays a demanding role as Shirley Valentine.
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 ?? ?? Shauna Black as Shirley Valentine. It runs until March 23 at Theatre Aquarius.
Shauna Black as Shirley Valentine. It runs until March 23 at Theatre Aquarius.

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