Three months after opening at the Menier Chocolate Factory, the Willy Russell season hits the West End to provide another high profile, surely successful transfer from the Southwark powerhouse.
The pairing of Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita looks more obvious, and more rewarding, than ever. Meera Syal’s perfect performance as Shirley, Saint Joan of the fitted units, exchanging her life of domestic misery for one of Greek Island fulfillment, remains one of brilliant technical accomplishment, now funnier and more moving than ever.
Shirley, directed by Glen Walford, easily out-gunned Rita at the Menier, where the second play had been snipped down to a ninety-minute version; but director Jeremy Sams has restored the full text, and the interval, and the improvement is enormous.
Also, Larry Lamb, shambling and benign though he was as Rita’s Open University tutor, Frank, has been replaced and utterly eclipsed by Tim Pigott-Smith giving a superbly detailed, monumental performance that re-invents the play as a genuine two-hander. Pigott-Smith’s Frank delights in Rita as much as he falls for her, and re-ignites memories of his Old Vic Professor Higgins creating his Eliza before, inevitably, losing her.
Frank’s story, too, comes up in much sharper relief: we care as much about his excessive drinking and frustrated career as a poet as we do about Rita’s progress. The scenes flow more intriguingly, the passage of time is fully plausible (Paul Anderson’s subtle lighting is a key factor), punch lines land properly, and well prepared, at each black-out.
And the chrysalis-into-butterfly progress of Rita is more ambiguous, as Laura Dos Santos, punchy and persistent as the young married hairdresser, cleverly allows us to conclude that her acquisition of the academic lingo, along with the second-hand clothes, is not necessarily all for the best. Her life is enriched, and somehow diminished, by all that exposure to D H Lawrence and William Blake.
Both plays look good on the Trafalgar stage in Peter McKintosh’s designs: Shirley’s kitchen and sun-drenched haven of sand and sky, and Frank’s cluttered office, shelves stacked with books and booze, where Rita comes into her kingdom by denying the expectations of friends and family. These are the most joyous of all feminist plays, brimming with good gags and humanity, and a glorious double whammy for the summer theatre trade.
PLEASE NOTE: The following review dates from April 2010, this production's run at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
Shirley Valentine 4*
Educating Rita 3*
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.
I saw both plays at their first performances - in Liverpool in 1986 and at the Warehouse (in the RSC days, before the Donmar) in 1980 - and it’s Shirley, directed now, as it was then, by Glen Walford, that strikes me as the better play, the more fluent and dynamic in Shirley’s transformation from Saint Joan of the fitted units to the relaxed tavern regular on a remote Greek island.
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.
It’s an intensely moving play, with great jokes, too. Educating Rita is a little more schematic and Jeremy Sams’ production has condensed the two short acts into one, making this even more obvious.
The scenes are sometimes too short for their own good, the punchlines variable, but the performances by Laura Dos Santos as 29 year-old, bright-as-a-button Rita and Larry Lamb as the shambolic alcoholic tutor are completely engaging, and you get a great sense of life experience out-flanking the prescriptive and redemptive virtues of art and education; to make a distinction proves gloriously unworkable.