I have to admit to a conflict of interest. Lois Anderson is a Masters student in Theatre at UBC, where I teach. She’s not my student but she is in my department. With that out of the way I have to say that Anderson is fabulous as Shirley Valentine. If you think I’m being partial, come see Rachel Ditor’s sure-handed Gateway production for yourself.
If you think this 1980s story of a British housewife’s feminist self-discovery might be dated, think again. Even if you’ve seen the play before with Nicky Cavendish or the movie with Pauline Collins, Anderson’s utterly delightful Shirley will crack you up and break your heart.
Playwright Willy Russell paints a grim picture of lower middle class domestic life in England. Shirley mopes around her kitchen talking to the wall (an awkward convention), tossing back glasses of wine, and fixing a dinner of chips and eggs for yobbo husband Joe, whose entrance she dreads. We never meet Joe—this is a solo show—but we get to know him very well through Shirley’s candid confessions and Anderson’s very funny characterization.
Joe bullies and dismisses a Shirley whose self-esteem is already scraping bottom. Feeling old at 42, with her children grown and gone from home, beaten-down Shirley sees no future. She’s lost herself, she hates her life, yet she’s terrified of change.
The playwright’s trick and the actress’ triumph are to make us see how charming and attractive Shirley really is. Her impish sense of humour is enhanced by Anderson’s excellent comic timing and delivery. At the same time Shirley’s sense of her wasted life is powerfully moving. We can’t help rooting for her.
A chance meeting with an old schoolfriend gives Shirley the courage to accept an offer to spend two weeks in the Greek islands. There, in the second act, she rediscovers herself with the help of a local lothario, also sharply evoked by Anderson. Costas is the ideal lover, a Cosmo fantasy who praises Shirley’s stretch marks and gives her super orgasms. She calls him Christopher Columbus because he discovers her island of Clitoris. He also makes her acutely aware of how accepting her “little life” has been “a crime against God.” Grounded in piercing revelations like this, the play keeps from drifting off into the pastel realms of romance.
Despite a shaky accent Anderson is magnetic. Speaking softly as Shirley, she forces us almost to lean in to hear her. And for both women and men, old or young, what she has to say is definitely worth hearing.