Anna Friend in Shirley Valentine

Theatre Review: Anna Friend gives a tour-de-force performance as Shirley Valentine in Willy Russell’s life-affirming story of one woman’s fight to be herself

No internet, no social media and no mince for supper on a Thursday. The Schoolhouse production of Willy Russell’s 1986 play Shirley Valentine featured Anna Friend as the titular character frying up eggs in the confines of Bristol’s Alma Tavern Theatre for husband Joe in a world only half a lifetime away – when a phone call was made from a call box and Polaroids recorded your holidays.

Directed at pace by Adam Elms the story of how dowdy and down-trodden Shirley Bradshaw is transformed back to her old self as Shirley Valentine was told with an energy and commitment by Anna Friend in this one woman production. With Willy Russell’s sharp one-liners the play has become something of a modern classic beloved by all those who are trapped in a loveless relationship as we recognise Shirley’s courage to walk out.

As she opens up in her kitchen about her life we recognise the home truths of ungrateful children, surly husbands, judgemental teachers and snobby neighbours like Gillian who ‘if you’ve got a headache, she’s got a brain tumour.’ Shirley quips about shopping, the clitoris, Ford Escorts, marriage and sex: “I think sex is like Sainsbury’s, you know, overrated. Just a lot of pushing and shoving and you still come out with very little at the end,” and, “I think that marriage is like the Middle East – there’s no solution.”

Holding the audience’s attention throughout the two hour show in her C&A top at home and her M&S swimsuit in Greece, Anna Friend gives voice to a string of characters by using her face and body to great effect. Her husband’s sulks, her daughter’s outrage, her neighbour’s bragging and her lover Kostas’ compliments were all brought to life with accomplished observation and huge humour. And the humour of the bitter-sweet metamorphosis rings true with the audience as despite the decades since it was written the story of a failed relationship remains universal.

A ballsy performance by Anna Friend of Shirley’s transformation from put upon Liverpool housewife to liberated Hellenized grecophile. It reminds us all that life is for living and the only way to be free is to be ourselves. As Shirley puts it near the end: “I have allowed myself to lead this little life, when inside me there was so much more. And it’s all gone unused. And now it never will be. Why do we get all this life if we don’t ever use it? Why do we get all these feelings and dreams and hopes if we don’t ever use them?”

Harry Mottram

The play runs 1-9 July, 2021 at the Alma Tavern and Theatre in Clifton, Bristol.

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The play was made into a film in 1989 with Pauline Collins as Shirley Valentine and directed by Lewis Gilbert.

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