Feminism with lashings of fun
by Michael Coveney
13 April 2010
The disappearing case of Willy Russell is one of the mysteries and frustrations of the British theatre. A revival on the same bill of two of his best known plays – Shirley Valentine dates from 1986, Educating Rita, an RSC commission, from 1980 – renowned for entertaining film versions starring Pauline Collins and Julie Walters, is a chill reminder that the man who also wrote book, lyrics and music for the perennial Blood Brothers hasn't written a new stage play since.
You can hardly complain, though, when you meet a performance as good as that of Meera Syal as Shirley, finding her life beyond the kitchen wall on a Greek island where the boatman kisses her stretch marks and she learns how to tap into all that life that's lying around unused.
Russell was always a gifted folk dramatist with a lovely turn of phrase and a rare ability to express working class aspirations without sounding middle class or patronising. Which is why the audience turning up at the Menier might not be the ideal one. Metropolitan sophisticates don't need telling about the virtues of social mobility and self-improvement, do we?
But it's the way that he writes so truthfully and wittily about his scouse ladies that makes these short plays such bubbles of delight. And Meera Syal nails Shirley with a wonderfully moving grace and affection, taking us through her catch-ups with Marjorie Majors in the Adelphi Hotel (Marjorie's a hooker, not an air hostess, it turns out) and her condescending neighbour Gillian (who begrudges her the breath to speak with) while cooking her dumb husband's egg and chips for his tea.
Laid out on the Greek beach, Shirley has exchanged her confessional kitchen wall – where she's a sort of Saint Joan of the fitted units, evoking her voices to prove she's still alive – for the uncomplicated granite of a sympathetic rock. The brilliance of the monologue lies in this idea that Shirley can only communicate by not communicating, ie chattering on to herself, or the rock.
And, as the Bee Gees' song has it, it's all about staying alive, or coming alive in a fuller way, that gives Shirley's chat its power and resonance, not just the fact that she had sex with old Costas, though that helped things along. Syal's acting, beautifully pointed and measured in Glen Walford's production, delivers a perfectly structured human comedy.
Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine at the Menier Chocolate Factory, review
Published: 09 Apr 2010
I have no reservations at all however about Meera Syal who gives a heart-catching performance as Shirley Valentine, a Liverpool housewife in a dead marriage whose horizons have become so limited that she talks to the kitchen wall for company. The mixture of anxiety, humour, wonder and mischief in this monologue as she describes a trip to Greece where she discovers that life offers far more than she believed was possible proves completely infectious. This is a lesser play than Educating Rita, but in Syall’s lovely performance, and Glen Walford’s beautifully judged production, it will glow in the memory of all who see it.
The Cult of Everywoman
The Financial Times
Monday April 12, 2010
Meera Syal´s Shirley simply gabs affably at us, occasionally directing a remark to the wall of her Liverpool home or a rock on the Greek beach for variety. Her hand gestures are on the expansive side, but this is after all a solo show, and this trait comes into its own when a more Mediterranean demonstrativeness is warranted. Syal and her director Glen Walford ring some nicely subtle changes, letting us see each step on her journey to self-rediscovery as it emerges from the banality of her life hitherto.
Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita at the Menier, London SE1
April 9, 2010, by Dominic Maxwell
Syal’s show is the triumph. She invests this brilliantly witty monologue with all her considerable comic energy without ever short-changing us on the sadness of a middle-aged life in limbo. As she fries her egg and chips, Syal gives us a lively, locquacious woman who’s slowly let her youthful light go out. Talking to the wall, sipping vino, she’s funny but resigned — “Marriage is like the Middle East, isn’t it: there’s no solution” — before her family’s boorishness finally persuades her to take up a girlfriend’s offer of a free holiday in Greece.
Giving us a good Scouse accent, give or take the odd vowel that hurtles south, she relays Shirley’s domestic frustration and foreign liberation with energy and care. There are plenty of laughs here: “They were that type,” she says of some fellow holidaymakers. “If they’d been at the Last Supper they’d have asked for chips.”
But the reawakening of Shirley Bradshaw, née Valentine, comes with that great Liverpudlian mix of sentiment and cynicism. Yeah, you can’t solve all your problems just by running away, by changing your name (which Rita also does). But these are stories about taking responsibility for yourself, and Syal and the director Glen Walford, who also directed the original in 1986, make it come up affecting, funny and fresh.
Glorious return for Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita
By Fiona Mountford, 09.04.10
Meera Syal, confidently directed by Glen Walford, sails through Shirley’s potentially daunting monologue. She potters comfortably around the kitchen as she prepares her husband’s dinner, chatting to her friend the wall and beguiling us with her quiet, cheerful desperation. It’s glorious to watch her glow with contentment in the Greek sunshine of the second half, and we too bask in its, and her, reflected rays.
Meera Syal as Shirley Valentine at the Menier Chocolate Factory
Photo: Catherine Ashmore
By Paul Callan Friday April 9,2010
Meera Syal gives a memorable performance as Shirley alone in her sterile, fitted kitchen. She brings a touching anguish to the role – particularly her worry about how her husband will react (not well) when his usual steak has been given to the dog.
She actually fries eggs and makes chips on stage (a wonderful smell wafts over the audience) as she reflects on marriage: “Like the Middle East… no solution.”
Her transformation comes during the holiday (she just goes, leaving Him behind) and Ms Syal transforms our Shirley, helped by sex with romantic Costas, into a new person.
There are some great comic lines which are delivered with polish. Of typical, complaining English tourists she says: “If they had been at the Last Supper they’d ask for chips!” Although her accent wanders around the north Ms Syal delivers a near-perfect portrayal of a woman rediscovering her soul.
By PATRICK MARMION - 09/04/2010 10:53:34
Shirley Valentine, meanwhile, is a monologue exhibiting Russell's talent as a raconteur as he spins the tale of a bored housewife escaping the 'Pool to find her true self in Greece.
In both plays Russell comes across as a cod-feminist who learnt to pamper ladies' egos while working in a hair salon. Still, his formula of selfdiscovery and sexual liberation is a heady one.
There is also great wit and wisdom in lines such as Shirley Valentine's comment that marriage is like the Middle East - 'There is no solution, you just have to observe the curfew and hope the ceasefire holds.'
Moreover, both plays still offer glorious roles. Meera Syal obviously relishes the housewife condemned to making egg and chips for a sullen husband.
Her accent just about makes it all the way up the M6 and even motors across to Bolton when required.
Earthy yet elevated, elegant yet brazen, her curvaceous form braves not just 1980s shoulder pads, but a tight swimsuit, too - her modesty secured by a pink negligee.
Published Friday 9 April 2010 at 11:20 by Heather Neill
Playing in tandem with Educating Rita in the Menier’s Willy Russell season is this monologue to end all monologues.
The put-upon Liverpool housewife who takes off for a life-changing Greek holiday has some of the same qualities as the aspirational hairdresser of Russell’s earlier play. She too wonders what her life - what life in general - is for and how anyone, especially a woman consigned to a limited role, can break out of a boring, quotidian existence.
Russell is, above all, a comic writer and Meera Syal, an accomplished comic actor, grabs the role with undisguised glee. She is almost too proficient at impersonating the characters who people her story - morose husband Joe, the actors in a primary school Nativity play, her randy mate Brummie Jane, whingeing Mancunian holidaymakers, a romantic Greek waiter and several more. Syal brings them all to life in a remarkable tour de force, warm and mercurial, under Glen Walford’s direction, which emphasises the laughs - just occasionally at the expense of a more wistful mood.
Russell’s witty writing, extraordinarily perceptive of the woman’s point of view, manages to give Shirley’s fantasy romance full weight without quite tipping into sentimentality or robbing her of the ironic, knowing tone which has characterised her survival as wife and mother. She describes the magical, hitherto undiscovered “Isle of Kleetoris” in the same no-nonsense manner (although with added delight) that she cooks up egg and chips in designer Peter McKintosh’s realistic fitted kitchen.
Whats On Stage.com
Even though they date from a lifetime ago, Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita still sound like a breath of fresh air. Never paired before, the Menier revival offers two definitive studies in self-discovery and self-improvement, with two wonderful Scouse heroines.
Meera Syal is simply terrific as Shirley, combining the forms of monologue, interior reflection, stand-and-deliver comedy and a whole gallery of supporting characters in a rich fruitcake of a performance. With all options exhausted, Shirley goes on the trip for the excitement of not knowing what might happen.
It’s this opening herself up to her own life once more that Syal makes so eloquent and moving. “He kissed my stretch marks” is a sign of her victory; it’s not the holiday sex with Costas that does it, but the fact that she stood naked on a boat and plunged into waters that last forever.
Shirley talks to the kitchen wall as she cooks her husband’s fried eggs and chips - gosh, they smell good - and decides to go. In the second scene she’s ready, togged up in a blue suit, only about two hours early for the taxi.
And then Peter McKintosh’s design takes us to the island, with the rock replacing the wall and Shirley seizing the moment. “Most of us die before we’re dead” she says, pinpointing the human tragedy while just managing to dodge it.