Shirley Valentine – Lyric Theatre – Review
by Cathy Brown
From 10 Sept – 5 Oct, 2019
‘I used to be Shirley Valentine. What happened? Who turned me into this?
It is a tough job to take on an iconic role that is inextricably linked to a particular actor, but at the Lyric Theatre Belfast, Derry Girls star Tara Lynne O’Neill soars as Shirley Valentine, in a performance of warmth and vulnerability that is as funny as it is immensely moving.
This lovable everywoman, who rediscovers her love for life on an unexpected holiday to Greece, has been transplanted from Liverpool to Belfast. Oisin Kearney’s sensitive reworking of Willie Russell’s original script means that the relocation works well, the Liverpudlian vernacular and self-effacing humour being a good match for Northern Irish sensibilities.
Tara Lynne O’Neill’s performance as the lonely woman who talks to her walls is a revelation. She has the comic timing and charisma to capture Shirley’s energy and wit but is also not afraid to use silence to project the vulnerability and emptiness at the heart of Shirley’s claustrophobic life. A beautifully paced and thoughtful performance, O’Neill is both joyously physical and quietly moving. Despite the familiarity of the story, the audience is caught up in Shirley’s journey anew and it would take a hard heart not to cheer her eventual emancipation from her ‘unlived life’.
The social and cultural landscape may have changed for women in the intervening years since the play was first staged, but the themes of stagnation and self-actualisation remain universal.
Patrick O’Reilly’s direction is unobtrusive yet tightly choreographed as Shirley circles the well-worn path around her kitchen, preparing a meal and cleaning up as she has done thousands of times before. Some set pieces are played almost like a stand-up show as O’Neill flexes her masterly comic timing with tales of a failed Nativity Play, an encounter with her arch nemesis from school and explains the importance of getting on the Clitoris Bus.
Paul Keogan’s set seems, at first, to be flimsy yet functional enough to fry egg and chips, however, it is used to great effect when Shirley, at the end of Act One, literally pushes through the walls that have been constraining her. All it takes in Act 2 is a smattering of sand and a vista of blue to transform the grey skies of Belfast to the aquamarine glory of Greece.
The pace slows a little at the start of the second half, but as Shirley finds herself in Greece and ‘falls in love with the idea of living’ what emerges is a heart-warming celebration of the tenacity of the human spirit.
Willy Russell is a unique writer who seems to have a direct conduit to the truth that lies at the heart of cliché. His jokes feel easy, but that is because they are rooted in truth, and when played directly to the gallery they find their target.
Even if the comedy might be a bit worn round the edges, this production brings out the joys of the play with a light touch, a bravura performance and a heart that, in the words of Shirley herself, is ‘as deep as forever’.
The death of Assistant Director Julie Maxwell during the rehearsal period brought a poignancy and emotional charge to the opening night of Shirley Valentine and Tara Lynne O’Neill is to be commended for both her performance and her heartfelt tribute to her colleague and friend.