In the past two weeks I have been to the theatre twice, once to see the utterly brilliant and thoroughly recommended musical ‘Operation Mincemeat’ and once to see a revival of Willy Russell’s ‘Shirley Valentine’ with the inimitable Sheridan Smith playing the heroine of the story.
I thought this would just be a pleasant nostalgic trip down memory lane, taking me right back to a time in the late 1980s when I first saw the play and, like Shirley, was very unhappy and dissatisfied with what was happening in my life, but didn’t know if I had the guts to do anything about it.
Unexpectedly, I found the play not only deeply moving but it spoke to me as profoundly at the age of 75 as it had done when I first saw it at the age of 41.
As Shirley Valentine was also made into a film starring Pauline Collins in the lead role and Tom Conti as the gorgeous Greek, Costas, I’m sure many of you will remember it as the story of a 42 year old Liverpudlian housewife who is married to Joe Bradshaw, a man who is both a creature of habit and firmly stuck in the mud. Willy Russell’s brilliance lies in making Shirley hilariously funny, so that her complaints about her husband land with wit rather than with a whinge. “Know what I’d like to do? I’d like to drink a glass of wine in a country where the grape is grown. Sittin’ by the sea. Lookin’ at the sun. But ‘he’ won’t go abroad. Well, y’ see, he gets jet lag when we go to the Isle of Man. And I wouldn’t mind but we go by boat. We’ve been going there for fifteen years - he still won’t drink the tap water. He’s that type, Joe. Gets culture shock if we go to Chester.”
Escape routes from this constrained existence have been few and far between for Shirley, a girl from a working class home whose headmistress at school had pigeon-holed her as stupid. “And when I was a girl - the only thing I ever wanted to do was travel. I always wanted to be a courier or an air hostess. But it was only the clever ones who got to do things like that. When I got my final report from school, the headmistress had written at the bottom of it, ‘I can confidently predict that Miss Valentine….’, that was my maiden name, ‘I confidently predict that Miss Valentine will not go far in life - which is just as well for, given her marks in geography, she would undoubtedly get lost.’
However, the possibility to fulfil her lifelong dream to travel and drink a glass of wine in a place where the grape is grown, has suddenly materialised in the form of an aeroplane ticket to Greece, given to her by her feminist friend Jane, whose husband has just run off with the milkman. By the end of the first act, during which Sheridan Smith had peeled potatoes, cut them into chips and cooked them in hot oil on the top of the stove with two fried eggs for Joe’s ‘tea’ which had to be on the table as he walked through the door, everyone in the audience is rooting for this funny, warm, delightful, downtrodden woman to defy the odds and escape the unfulfilled life to which her education, early marriage and motherhood has condemned her. “I used to be Shirley Valentine. I used to be Shirley Valentine…..I used to be Shirley….’ What happened? Who turned me into this? I don’t want this. ….. It would be easier to understand if something had happened, if I’d found him in bed with the milkman, if there was something to blame…. But somewhere along the way Joe turned into ‘him’ and Shirley Valentine became just another name on the missing person’s list.”
You will probably remember what happens next. Shirley escapes to Greece without telling Joe, but, ever the dutiful wife, she’s left him enough frozen meals for 14 days and organised for her mother to come round to serve them to him. In Greece, abandoned by her friend Jane, Shirley goes to a local bar run by Costas and he invites her to come out on his boat with him. Shirley is completely clear-eyed that she’s not the first person he’s taken out in his boat, and won’t be the last, but, no matter, because “I knew I was with a good man. I knew that whatever happened he wouldn’t take anythin’ from me. We sailed for miles and miles. An’ we talked. Properly. An we didn’t half laugh. We liked each other. An’ isn’t it funny, but if you’re with someone that likes y’, who sort of approves of y’ - well y’ start to like….grow again. Y’ move in the right way, y’ say the right thing at the right time and you’re not eighteen or forty-two or sixty-four. You’re just alive.”
Willy Russell was particularly clever with his ending of Shirley Valentine. Instead of a mushy love story in which a naive and vulnerable middle-aged housewife finds salvation in the arms of a handsome Greek waiter, he gives us an entirely different redemption for our heroine. She may have let her luggage go back to Liverpool without her, but she doesn’t stay for Costas, she stays for herself. A confused and incensed Joe: “I knew it, I knew it, it’s the bleeding change of life isn’t it?” flies out to persuade Shirley to come back to her old life with him in Liverpool.
The play ends with Shirley sitting by the sea under a parasol, imagining what will happen when Joe arrives. “I’m gonna sit here an’ watch for Joe. An’ as he walks down the esplanade, an keeps on walking, because he doesn’t recognise me anymore, I’ll call out to him. An’ as he walks back, an’ looks at me, all puzzled and quizzical, I’ll say to him - ‘Hello, I used to be the mother. I used to be the wife. But now, I’m Shirley Valentine again. Would you like to join me for a drink?”
I can so clearly remember when I first saw Shirley Valentine in 1988 how poleaxed I felt at the end of it. There were very few direct parallels between Shirley and me apart from the overwhelming sense that I had been living inside a life that no longer fitted who I was. Having been a ‘stay-at-home mum’ for twelve years, I had just landed my first proper dream job in 1986, aged 38. Then, two years later, it looked as though it would all come to a shuddering halt when my husband’s career took us to Sweden. With every fibre of my body I didn’t want to give up my job and become ‘the wife and the mother’ once more. But it looked as though I had little choice or say in the matter.
The passage in the play which had hit me the hardest was in the final act and played with great pathos last Saturday by Sheridan Smith with big fat tears rolling down her face: “What I kept thinking was how I’d lived such a little life. An’ one way and another even that was going to be over pretty soon. I thought to myself my life has been a crime really - a crime against God, and nature because I didn’t live it fully. I’d allowed myself to live this little life when inside of me there was so much. So much more I could have lived a bigger life with - but it had all gone unused, an’ now it never would be. Why?....Why do you get….all this life, when it can’t be used? Why….why do y’ get all these feelin’s an’ dreams an’ hopes if they can’t ever be used? That’s where Shirley Valentine disappeared to. She got lost in all this unused life.”
I’m pretty sure that the tears would have also been rolling down my face during that speech in the theatre back in 1988, but they inspired me not to accept the status quo. When my mother died aged 67 a few months later, I kept thinking “I’m 42, I may only have another twenty-five years left to live, so I’d better not waste a second of it.” I did move to Sweden for a while, but then my marriage ended and I was able to return to the UK and set about creating a whole new life for myself which I can honestly say has pretty much fulfilled all of the hopes and dreams that I had back then.
So, why did the play still resonate so thoroughly when I saw it last Saturday? Clearly, I no longer have most of my life before me as I did back in 1988, nor am I currently confronting any life-changing dilemmas. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t still have hopes and dreams and things left that I want to achieve. As Shirley so poignantly says towards the end of the play: “We say we’re fine. An’ we carry on an’ on an’ on until we die. An most of us die…. long before we’re dead. An what kills us is the terrible weight of all this unused life that we carry round.”
When you read this I will be on my way to Sicily, a place I have never visited before, to learn more about my new hobby of watercolour painting. Just doing my best to keep using up as much life as I can so that the weight of it doesn’t kill me before I die.
Top Image from Shirley Valentine. CREDIT - Photo: Matthew Dunster. See here
Disclaimer: Look Fabulous Forever do not own all of the images used in this blog. Please note that all images and copyrights belong to their original owners. no copyright infringement intended.
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Friday 23rd June
Film Club: She Said
Available on Amazon Prime
Watch the film beforehand and join us for a group discussion!
Day: Friday 23rd June 2023
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