Review: Shirley Valentine, Lyric Theatre

Tara Lynne O'Neill as Shirley Valentine

Shirley Valentine

Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Willy Russell's ground-breaking 1986 play Shirley Valentine is instructive. The great new production which premiered at the Lyric Theatre this week tells us everything we need to know about the ghastliness of the female human condition.

His heroine bears comparison with long-suffering girls in Jane Austen and Helen Fielding, the creator of Bridget Jones.

What you get from the start is humour, originally Scouse and now Belfast.

That is sometimes slightly self-indulgent with references to problems on the Westlink and a Marie Jones-Leesa Harker vibe. But Tara Lynne O'Neill is luminous in the title role.

She shows the comic timing of Ma in Derry Girls. She delivers the lines to Wall and Fridge, bemoans the emptiness of her life as a kind of domestic slave, always dishing out mince on Thursday and, of course, tackles the famous clitoris riff with aplomb.

We laughed at the great comic lines, the bathos about husband Joe ("Marriage is like the Middle East, isn't it? There's no solution") but maybe in the first half the snappy stuff takes precedence over the pathos.

For this is a very sad piece too at times, marking Shirley's initial descent from a spunky, undervalued schoolgirl to bullied housewife. Clever lighting signposts our reactions throughout.

The second half contains some genuinely great passages. Established on her Greek island, Shirley looks quite different in a sexy swimming costume and sun hat and is finding her true self.

Her rescuer is serial wooer of middle-aged tourists, Costas, nicknamed Christopher Columbus as he's ably discovered her or uncovered her pleasure territory.

It's totally Laurentian and this is not just about sex but about female identity and self-worth. Shirley symbolically pushed over the walls of her perfect kitchen at the end of act one, and now it's the Aegean Sea all the way. The sound effects are fantastic.

Ms O'Neill's acting brilliantly conveys Shirley Valentine's transformation. She dangles her fake tanned legs over the edge of the sea and ponders her transformed future.

It may be only a job in the taverna, watching Costas woo the next frustrated British tourist, but she can't return to her former self. As she says: "I've allowed myself to lead this little life but inside me there is so much more." Patrick O'Reilly directs with skill.

Some might call the play dated but I am not so sure. At the end, there was a well deserved standing ovation and we remembered the deputy director, Julie Maxwell, who died recently and far too young.

Jane Hardy

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