Shirley Valentine review: Sheridan Smith is ‘dazzling’ in one-woman play 

Smith delivers a ‘continuously enrapturing’ performance at Duke of York’s Theatre

Sheridan Smith in Shirley Valentine 
Sheridan Smith in Shirley Valentine 
(Image credit: Helen Murray)

Sheridan Smith and Shirley Valentine is “a match made in theatre heaven”, said Jessie Thompson in The Independent. Smith is a “national treasure”, while Willy Russell’s one-woman play – about a middle-aged Liverpudlian housewife yearning for a more fulfilling life – has been “beloved” since it was first staged in 1986. “It sounds like it should work, and it really, really does.” Smith’s comedic talents are brilliantly deployed here; but as an actress, she also has a “rare forte for insinuating some quiet sorrows beneath the social fizz”, said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph. The result is a performance that is “continuously enrapturing”.

Smith is “dazzling” – but what struck me is what a nuanced and “eternally relevant” play this is, said Arifa Akbar in The Guardian. In the early scenes, as Shirley talks to her kitchen wall, the tone is “poundshop Alan Bennett” and the comedy “slightly predictable”. Shirley tells us that marriage is like the Middle East (“there’s no solution”) and that sex with her husband is like a trip to Sainsbury’s (after all the pushing and shoving you come out with very little). But with this “light and froth”, Russell is softening us up for some profound writing – about identity, ageing and how we tolerate unhappiness for fear of the unknown. It reveals itself in measures, and when it does, “it feels real and painful”.

A once-spirited woman now feels boxed in by her “bland life”, said Alice Saville in the Financial Times: Valentine’s kids have left home, “her friends have vanished, her husband expects to be waited on – and she has totally lost sight of the popular, rebellious girl she once was”. At points, Sheridan “seems too sunny and full of life” to make sense of the bitterness of some of the lines; and some of the references are a bit dated. But such qualms fade as Valentine’s transformation begins: she radiates joy as she takes herself abroad – to “a sun-drenched world of sexual and social possibilities” – to fulfil her hunger for something more. “It’s a cliché to describe something as life-affirming. But the world really does feel like a brighter, more exciting place after a couple of hours in Valentine’s company.”

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The Duke of York’s Theatre, London WC2 (0800-912 6971). Until 3 June;

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