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"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have
lighted fools
The way to dusty death. "
(Macbeth: Act V Scene V)

'Shirley Valentine' by Willy Russell

JULY 2009 stones

Directed by: Richard Parish
Design by: Michael Clements
Lighting and Sound by: Alex Lyon
Cast: Karen Sahlsberg

For a direct link to the GALLERY of PHOTOGRAPHS of this production CLICK: Shirley Valentine

'Shirley Valentine' takes the form of a monologue by a housewife before and after a transforming holiday in Greece. Shirley is a middle-aged Liverpool housewife, who finds herself talking to the wall while she prepares her husband's chips 'n' egg, wondering what happened to her life. She compares scenes in her current life with what she used to be like and feels she's stagnated and in a rut. But when her best friend wins an all-expenses-paid vacation to Greece for two, she leaves the drudgery of cooking dinner for her husband, packs her bags and heads for the sun. The note on the kitchen table reads "Gone to Greece back in two weeks." Shirley begins to see the world, and herself, in a different light.

Karen Sahlsberg, who has appeared with Lighted Fools in 'The Shakespeare Revue', 'Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell' and 'April in Paris' and who directed 'The Dresser' played Shirley in this hilariously funny but also very moving piece. On stage alone for nearly two hours, Karen brought her considerable talents as a character actress to a very demanding role.

This production was part of the inaugural Summer Festival of Theatre at the popular Walton-on-Thames riverside arts centre.

Willy Russell is one of Britain’s most successful contemporary dramatists and a playwright whose work can frequently be linked with Liverpool. Among his strengths is a keen observation of working class values, particularly those of women - some commentators suggest these were gleaned from his time as a ladies hairdresser. Whatever the influence his observations are seen to advantage in “Blood Brothers” “Educating Rita” and “Shirley Valentine.”

“Shirley Valentine” is the latest production from Lighted Fools, the award winning Surrey based Theatre Company that has worked in Cranleigh, Guildford and Walton. I saw this production at the Riverside Barn Arts centre in Walton, as part of the Festival of Theatre and which attracted capacity audiences all week.

The play originally appeared in 1986, it subsequently became an international film success and has been seen as a theatrical production on countless occasions. Its form is a monologue addressed directly to the audience and so an inherent danger might be that, as an audience, ‘we’ve heard it all before’ – this was not to be my experience.

One advantage of a (two act) monologue is the time it allows the personality of the player to inhabit the character. Given this opportunity for development, well-honed lines can emerge as fresh and insightful. Director Richard Parish took full advantage of actor Karen Sahlsberg’s natural warmth and rapport. We find her as Shirley standing by the sink as she prepares her husband’s evening meal, sharing with us confidences about Jane, a neighbour, who discovered her husband in bed with the milkman. At this point Sahlsberg’s delivery had freshness and cheeky originality. Later this contrasted well with her despair at the hum-drum resonance of her life, “I should be on a missing persons’ list!” – this drew a gasp from several around me and added poignancy to the emotional bankruptcy of her situation. It additionally brought understanding of her need to escape to Greece or anywhere.

Director Richard Parish ensured a movement plot that unobtrusively offered differing levels of interest as Shirley set about kitchen chores. Karen Sahlsberg, with direct eye contact, a shy smile and an effective Liverpuddlian accent, made ‘friends’ with her audience.

The sustained applause at the end indicated to me the audience had empathy with Shirley’s situation and her solution.

The Stage Manager was John Tytherleigh, set design by Michael Clements, with lighting and sound by Alex Lyon.

As we have seen from the recent Mama Mia experience, there must be something about the Greek Islands which holds a huge sense of escape and release for unhappy middle-aged housewives. Almost 25 years ago Shirley Valentine blazed the trail to this sun-drenched Eden in Willy Russell’s popular monologue.

It was good to see Lighted Fools turn the spotlight on the sometimes overlooked actresses in their company – and here Karen Sahlsberg rose wonderfully to the huge challenges of a script which demands she holds attention single-handedly throughout the two hours.

Trapped in a well-used and well-observed kitchen, designed by Mike Clements, she might have been a shade more wan and careworn at the outset ~ but what she captured beautifully was the joy of the sense of release from an arid existence as she found fulfilment in the Mediterranean sun. And that, of course, is the essence of the play.

Another strong aspect of this notable performance is the way in which Karen slipped easily from her Meyseyside accent into the characters of other people in her life. Among many sharply observed pen pictures, was her old headmistress, her school friend, her headstrong off-spring and of course Carlos, the Greek boatman who helps her discover her true self. Throughout, this was a performance of intimate spontaneity and the shadow of Pauline Collins, the original Shirley, was never cast. This was a new-minted portrayal.

Dick Parish’s direction was smooth and intimate – allowing the text to speak for itself. Interesting that it was played as a period piece suggesting that today women like Shirley are more likely to have broken out of their soulless cage long before.

But here, those final speeches from Shirley/Karen were a joyful cry from the heart and thus made a touching, life-enhancing piece of theatre.


I did so enjoy 'Shirley Valentine' – very well done.

Thought 'Shirley Valentine' was superb. Karen managed a tour de force with grace and ease. She made me laugh and cry.

I thoroughly enjoyed the performance of 'Shirley Valentine'. I thought that Karen was totally amazing. A pity she didn't offer me the eggs and chips!! Well done again - I am really looking forward to your next production.

We laughed, we cried, we loved it. Not stopped talking about it and have been telling everyone. Karen looked stunning and truly beautiful.

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