New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 7th March, 2017
This revival of Willy Russell’s play from 1986 reminds the film version’s legions of fans that the piece started life as an extended monologue, a one-woman show. The one woman this time, following in the footsteps of the likes of Noreen Kershaw and Pauline Collins, is musical theatre star Jodie Prenger, and I am interested to see how she will fare without recourse to her impressive singing voice.
As forlorn housewife Shirley, Prenger more than acquits herself, pulling off a comic turn that is as endearing as it is funny. I could be churlish and nit-pick her adopted accent, which tends to roam around Merseyside at times, but on the whole, she captures the cadence of Russell’s Liverpudlian phrases – what matters is she can time a punchline, and the script is riddled with those. As she recounts her story, Shirley presents other characters: her mardy husband, her son and daughter, her neighbour, and so on. Prenger effectively sketches these personalities for us through voice and attitude, and tells her anecdotes with verve and energy. Alone throughout, Prenger fills the stage with her presence and it is enjoyable to behold.
Director Gwen Walford takes a straightforward approach, having Prenger animated and larger-than-life for the funny bits, and keeping her still for the poignant moments. Simple but strong.
Amy Yardley’s set gives us the sunshine yellow of Shirley’s kitchen – a gilded cage – and also an effective representation of a secluded Grecian beach – it is here that James Whiteside’s gorgeous lighting beats down like the relentless sun.
Jodie Prenger’s comic energy and commitment to the role keep us on board with Shirley – her journey is as much a mental one as a physical change of location – and it’s delightful to be reminded of the quality of Willy Russell’s writing.
Russell’s script stands the test of time. There is an element of nostalgia in its references to the F-Plan diet and the Milk Tray man but the jokes hold up, as does the play’s central message: Life is to be lived. In this sense, Shirley is more than a downtrodden housewife reclaiming her identity and asserting her independence; she is an Everyman, speaking to us all.