Shirley Valentine, tired of the same old routines, speaks of the excitement of not knowing what will happen next.
Yet many of those in her audience at the Old Globe Theatre’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage know exactly what will happen to Shirley. Willy Russell’s monologue about a working-class British woman’s great escape from diurnal drudgery was turned into a movie, which earned a 1989 best actress Oscar nomination for Pauline Collins, who created the title role on stage. It’s likely that most of those who would be interested in Shirley’s story already have seen the movie. If not, they can rent it for even one-twentieth the cost of a ticket at the Old Globe.
So the question arises: Is the play worth the extra expense? It would be myopic for the Old Globe to pretend that people won’t ask that, or to declare that questions of cost should have no bearing on our consideration of their “Shirley.” After all, the relatively low production cost of a one-woman show probably had some bearing on their own decision to stage “Shirley.”
Those who have seen only the movie may be surprised to learn that “Shirley” is a monologue. In the movie, the subsidiary characters were sketched with remarkable precision by other actors. At the Old Globe, we hear many of their lines, but they’re spoken not just through the filter of Shirley’s perceptions, but in her voice, as Shirley recounts her conversations with them. In other words, actress Katherine McGrath doesn’t portray a variety of characters--as Lily Tomlin, for example, does in her own one-woman shows. McGrath plays no one but Shirley.
It requires a zealous faith in the power of the solo performer to believe that this is an advantage. This kind of faith is especially necessary when the solo performance is done in an arena staging, as it is here.
During long passages of this “Shirley,” you look at the back of McGrath’s head, while the spectators on the opposite side of the room get to see her face. You can’t watch the other characters’ reactions; there are none.
It’s not that McGrath and director Craig Noel haven’t tried to accommodate the entire audience. Shirley is frequently on the move, shifting the angle of her address as much as possible. Before intermission, she’s making dinner, and her moves from one room to another of Nick Reid’s spacious household set make sense. She talks not just to one wall, but to all of them--and the imaginary walls are located right where the audience sits.
After intermission, she’s sunning on a rocky Greek beach, and the constant movement seems more artificial. The conceit in the script is that now she’s talking to one of the rocks, yet that rock is in center stage. So the conceit is largely disregarded. McGrath directs her words out toward the audience, not at the rock.
There are more of those words in the play than there were in the movie. Shirley is more of a chatterbox here, and some of the lines that got left out of the movie are funny or charming little fillips. Others, however, seem superfluous or repetitive.
The play establishes one pertinent fact about Shirley that wasn’t mentioned in the movie: She works outside the home. She refers to feeding the dog at “the place where I work,” indicating that she probably does some form of domestic work. In the movie, we see the dog-feeding episode, but it takes place at a neighbor’s house. The idea that Shirley has to work in someone else’s home, then is faced with her own housework, makes her routines sound less bearable. But it’s not developed beyond that one reference.
Also, her son is more of a problem here. Near the end, we hear that he has been arrested. In the movie, he’s a sweet guy who actively prods his father into attempting a reconciliation with Shirley. It’s another reason why Shirley’s life in England sounds even less inviting in the play.
McGrath clearly establishes a different look for this Shirley. With curly red hair, high cheekbones and an otherwise angular face, she’s a far cry from the pretty but pudgy Collins. There is no suggestion here that Shirley eats too much as compensation for her daily frustrations. Also on a cosmetic level, it’s hard to discern why she makes such a distinction between her pre-Greek pallor and her subsequent tan.
Nevertheless, McGrath appears to know Shirley well. Her accent sounds flawless to these untutored ears. She measures Shirley’s alternating degrees of depression and self-confidence with a fine hand, and she enthusiastically throws herself into Shirley’s imitations of others.
Despite McGrath’s skill and the Old Globe’s usual technical polish, however, the monologue is like a first draft for the movie. If theaters are to survive, they must provide worthwhile experiences that can’t be obtained elsewhere. This one doesn’t meet that requirement.
“Shirley Valentine,” Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Simon Edison Centre, Balboa Park, San Diego, Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Ends April 26. $21-$29.50. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
‘Shirley Valentine’ Katherine McGrath: Shirley Valentine
An Old Globe Theatre production. By Willy Russell. Directed by Craig Noel. Sets by Nick Reid. Costumes by Robert Wojewodski. Lights by Barth Ballard. Sound by Jeff Ladman. Stage manager Jerome J. Sheehan.