Shirley Valentine, Lyric Theatre, Belfast, September 2019

Shirley Valentine, Theatre Review, The Lyric, September, 2019

By Conor O’Neill

Photography courtesy of Johnny Frazer

A white wine spritzer is never far away when you’re Shirley Valentine. You’ve a son who is an existentialist extentionist, daughters who fleece you blind, plus a hubby who’s forgot above love the day the handcuff, sorry, ring went on your finger, it’s just you and the wall.

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Confessional, friend, with the mirror you have to check your beauty, yet day one you’ll just wanna tear down. Nothing and everything is possible. 42-year-of-age, neighbours you hate and think hate you; a Milk Tray man lost somewhere in the wilderness, possibly dangling a thousand foot up and probably isn’t worth a damn; your feminist buddy who thinks all men are ‘potential rapists’. Chopping spuds, stirring oil, cracking eggs and you just want to taste wine in the country the grapes are grown.

Let’s all make believe there’s a solution to this humdrum, mundanity and isolation that’s been on your back for too long to remember. A holiday is booked. Hubby Joe is unaware, still raging you’ve fed a pound and half of mince to an eejit raising a vegetarian bloodhound. The menu in the Bradshaw household is formulaic; this play is far from it.

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Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine first hit hallowed boards way back in the mid 1980s; it’s been to The Westend, Broadway and been turned into a movie. Director Patrick J. O’Reilly’s approach is as always the Belfast one, albeit one influenced with his love of the Jacques Lecoq International School based in Paris. Yet there’s less focus on movement here than previous works. Language and characters are at the forefront in this fascinating two hours and five minutes of theatre. ‘Impossible’ turns to ‘impassible’, the ‘logical’ to ‘ladgical’, logically. Our Shirley happily throws such terms out of the window. Such is Tara Lynne O’Neill’s portrayal of the middle-age protagonist all 380 odd people of the Lyric’s packed mainstage, feel an instant connection and empathy to this woman who offers hope when the rainbow seemingly has lost its muster.

I’ve never seen O’Neill on stage before, nor on the tele. Derry Girls was a few episodes in before I was able to catch up, the last time I watched Eastenders, Nick Cotton was on the wrong end of a syringe. O’Neill’s talent and scale of success has continued to soar with every production and credit put beside her name. Between her, me, you and the wall, she happily moves effortlessly moves from the Dublin twang of Dougie and Jeanette to offspring Millandra and Brian, friends Jean, Gillian and former bully Majorie. Little does she know what’s in store when she meets tavern owner, Costas, nor what treats and delights Corfu will offer.

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Described on the internet as a rom-com, such idle descriptions fall far short of this endearing play’s travel of self-discovery and enlightenment offers. The first half is a mix of self-doubt, the pressures of house-wifery, recollections of past grievances, wavering determination and then the walls come down. Literally.

Lest we forget, one soul did not get to see the fruits of her labour. Assistant director, Julie Lewis’s pre-production diary of rehearsals covers O’Reilly’s voyage of how many steps from sink to cooker, fridge to table and the blossoming of O’Neill to Valentine.

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The standing ovation lasts 10 minutes. Tara Lynne O’Neill said she was tasked with the impossible: to write a few words in memory of Julie. Instead she ends with a song; the words, and I could hear sobbing from every direction,  laments, ‘All that’s left of the singer, is all that’s left of the song’. In Memory of Julie Lewis, February 25th, 1983 – August 24th, 2019

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Shirley Valentine runs until October 5th with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. For booking info visit http://www.lyrictheatre.co.uk or call the box-office on 02890 381081

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