Review: Shirley Valentine (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), May 3 – Jun 9, 2018
Playwright: Willy Russell
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Sharon Millerchip
Images by Anna Kucera

Theatre review
It was only 30 or so years ago, that millions of women had lived like Shirley Valentine; lonely housewives who spoke to walls at home, subsisting with no real purpose, and suffering from the ill effects of misplaced self-esteem from years of marriage and motherhood. After decades of obeying rules of society and religion, id est to wed a man and fall pregnant, and then realising that the second half of their lives could easily turn meaningless, when their assigned function in procreation expires at middle age.

Willy Russell’s 1986 monologue Shirley Valentine can seem a relic, about a type of repressed womanhood, which has disappeared from our new century, but even though that particular archetype no longer occupies front of our minds, Shirley’s challenges remain resonant. Many of us adhere to the expectations of others, trusting in the promises of tradition and convention, rather than determining for ourselves, the constituents of a personally fulfilling life. The argument of course, is that it is never too late to start living, although to break free of one’s own shackles, is always easier said than done.

Even though the play is no longer the breath of fresh air that some remember, Mark Kilmurry’s direction ensures that its ageless pertinence is kept pronounced and pervasive. Alongside the highly entertaining whimsy of Shirley’s personality, is an ever-present sense of profundity accompanying all phases of the joyful evolution that we watch her undergo. Full of charm and airy wit, it is an engaging show from start to end, with actor Sharon Millerchip’s charisma proving irresistible, tenaciously so, as we observe her transformations, from strength to strength. Millerchip invites us, with exacting resolve, to root for her character, and we feel as though we take the journey together, with her as captain and us the motor that propels her forward. Shirley’s successes need to be witnessed, and we are there, happily, for her.

Shirley Valentine is a vaguely feminist piece, showing little resentment for power structures determined to keep women subjugated, but celebrates instead, its protagonist’s ability to fight for her own emancipation. The play ends where a new chapter is about to begin. That ambiguity is an accurate representation of many who dare to rise up and reclaim power. For a moment at least, the individual will have to come face to face with opposing forces, that had been hitherto dormant and appeased. Once materialised, this re-positioning of status and relationships, is an unknown quantity, that may lead to a new equilibrium, or more likely, cause ruptures that if sufficiently substantial, will deliver a greater sense of independence and self-determination. To achieve what is fair and just, often involves significant sacrifices that are initially inconceivable. Shirley wants her cake and eat it too. We can only keep our fingers crossed.