Sheridan is wall to wall sunshine, a one-woman pina colada with a cocktail umbrella
SHIRLEY VALENTINE Duke of York’s Theatre, London ★★★★★
WHEN the curtain rises on Sheridan Smith’s West End return, it’s as if sunshine breaks across the stage. The warmth of her enormous smile in Willy Russell’s onewoman tale of a lonely, middleaged Liverpool housewife, is simply irresistible.
Even if you think the 1989 film with Pauline Collins as Shirley and Tom Conti as Costas, pictured below, her leery Greek lover, is untouchable, there’s a good chance you’ll love this twoand-a-bit hour solo show even more. Sheridan is a pina colada – complete with cocktail umbrella – to the film’s pint of Watney’s Red Barrel.
She invests Shirley with the full radiance of her personality, talking to the walls of her fitted kitchen, before escaping for a Greek holiday with her friend Jane (whose fella has run off with the milkman).
And it’s worth recalling that back then, Greece still had the exotic image to charge Shirley’s dreams of crystal seas that are ‘as deep as forever’.
Even as Russell’s play itself lurches into middle age, his gags still trip off the tongue. ‘Marriage is like the Middle East,’ says Shirley, ‘there is no solution’. And: ‘Did the Earth move? I thought it’d come off its axis!’
But Russell’s most famous gag, which follows Costas’s hymn to Shirley’s stretch marks, damn near stops the show altogether. Sections of the audience were left whimpering with laughter.
Yet what Smith brings above all is an aching heart – made all the more poignant by her own travails which saw her crash out of Legally Blonde in the West End 12 years ago.
My Mrs wondered if this story about a woman trapped in her marriage isn’t a little dated... ‘Women do as they please, nowadays, don’t they?’ she mused. Maybe, but what Smith smashes here is the story’s timeless element of what Shirley calls ‘unused life’ – paths we haven’t taken, regrets we wish we’d had the courage to set right and empty obligations we should’ve shaken off long before.
She gives an enormously sweet, touching and vulnerable performance that’s also joyful, powerful and eye-moistening. She has an umbilical connection with her audience and is so at ease nattering, glugging Riesling and rustling up egg and chips, that she makes the us feel like her best and oldest mate. Matthew Dunster’s flawless production and Paul Wills’s warmly glowing design sets her in a kind of azure dream of Mediterranean light – first blocked out by Shirley’s pastel coloured kitchen, but then in full force on the Greek island where our Scouser heroine wears her fine silk robe.
So loved is Smith as Shirley, that when she appears before the interval with suitcase and dressed for the airport, the sight of her costume alone wins a cheer. We know what it means: she’s off. Caution has been tossed to the wind.
Do yourself a favour, too, and book tickets while you can.