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SCENE IT: Sweet Shirley takes you on an adventure at Theatre on the Bay

Barbara Loots


SHIRLEY VALENTINE, currently onstage at Theatre on the Bay, brings a sense of familiarity that feels like you are sitting down to a chat with an old friend.

South African audiences are well acquainted with the play SHIRLEY VALENTINE by Willy Russel. The play, which originally premiered in 1986 at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool and was turned into a movie in 1989, has taken to South Africa’s theatre stages in many forms and translations over the years.

A one-character play, it introduces the audience to Shirley Bradshaw, a working class housewife from Liverpool who feels stuck in her life. In conversation with the audience she reminisces about the rebel she once was in her teens and convinces herself that that part of her identity is worth finding again. And so she invites the audience along on her journey of self-discovery. Her newly rediscovered sense of adventure leads her to accepting an invitation from her fiercely independent “man-hating” friend to join her on a two-week holiday in Greece free of the responsibility of having to cook and care for her family.

SHIRLEY VALENTINE in the late ‘80s would have been regarded as a progressive play, tackling issues such as women’s empowerment in the discovery of the clitoris and the feminist movement. But today, it feels a bit dated, as women no longer wait for a man to assist with any ‘discovery expedition’; today’s women have taken their happiness into their own hands. With this latest production, while taking in Shirley’s monologue again, I was left feeling like I was meeting up with an old friend (possibly now rather a mere acquaintance after all these years) who always recalls the same nostalgic story that no longer has any impact on our lives apart from being a nice memory of a moment shared.

One aspect about SHIRLEY VALENTINE that does hold up in the current day is the question of what to do with an unlived life and where to find yourself if you have lost your purpose in the process of not-living. Given the two-year lockdown we have all experienced, it is hard to believe that there is anyone left untouched by the sense of having wasted or lost part of their life to the simple passage of time. As Shirley explains why she set off, and ultimately stayed, in Greece to figure out how to live such unlived life, one is confronted with the realisation that we should all be as brave as Shirley and chase our dreams.

Nathasha Sutherland steps into the shoes of Shirley with ease and embraces her flaws and all with a warmth that brings an element of endearment to her performance. The stage design is minimalistic with white walls and scattered set pieces that allow for Shirley’s dreams and the audiences imagination to bring the space to life.

Although the idea that being 47 (as Shirley proclaims to be) is no longer regarded as middle-aged or representing woman in search of an awakening, SHIRLEY VALENTINE is still a very sweet play with an empowering end that may give us all hope to rediscover ourselves in the wake of all the unlived life we may have tucked away in sadness captured by the last few years.

You have until 5 March 2022 to go see the heart-warming, uplifting SHIRLEY VALENTINE at Theatre on the Bay, with tickets available online through Computicket. All Covid protocols are observed, so seats are limited.


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