Anyone who – like Phil – is easily distracted from their Saturday morning chores by Saturday Kitchen will know the terms “food heaven” and “food hell” and it is thrilling to be able to report that the Whingers experienced the former at Saturday afternoon’s preview performance of Shirley Valentine, part of the Menier Chocolate Factory‘s Willy Russell season.
There was a fully working deep fat fryer! Andrew couldn’t believe his eyes. Was Meera Syal really frying chips live on stage? Well, yes, she was. The smell was permeating the auditorium. In fact the whole of the first scene sees Syal’s titular Shirley peel potatoes, chip them, dry them and pop them in the fryer. And then she fries two eggs in a frying pan! Live! On stage! No trickery, no mirrors, no projections, no miming. Phil could see an entire new chapter emerging for his food-on-stage thesis.
It was of course incredibly distracting – don’t ask us what else happened in Act 1 as we couldn’t tell you – but not quite as distracting as Phil’s personal “food hell” as he became gradually fixated by the kitchen set’s pedal bin.
Syal kept touching the bin and then returning to food preparation without washing her hands. Phil hadn’t had his Howard Hughes tendencies so severely tested in a theatre since the raw chicken dismembering in There Came a Gypsy Riding. Touch bin. Slice potatoes. Touch bin. Wipe hands on tea towel. Touch bin. Dry potatoes in said tea towel. Aren’t tea towels supposed to have more germs than a cat’s fundament? Why wouldn’t she use the bin’s foot pedal?* And to cap it all she kept saying “clitoris”. It was all too much for Phil.
But as distracting as all this was, Willy Russell’s iconic 1988 play has stood the test of time surprisingly well. Shirley Valentine has of course passed into the English language, “Doing a Shirley Valentine” describing the actions of women who, disenchanted with their humdrum lives, take a break from their husbands to seek adventure elsewhere and discover themselves – and that’s basically all there is to the plot, but it’s very charming.
It’s an understandably popular piece with a mix of crowd pleasing gags and subtler reflections on life. Syal has the necessary natural (or natural-seeming) warmth needed to make a successful Shirley. This was only the second preview and as SV is a monologue it’s an enormous part to master, let alone handling a potato peeler and a deep-fat fryer.
Her confidence seemed to grow through the play which suits the character anyway. Presumably having got over the stressful task of cooking and acting at the same time, Syal could relax a bit and it all began to flow. She proves adept at creating pictures of the other, unseen characters and if her accent occasionally seems to go on a little mystery tour of the North West every now and then it doesn’t really matter.
She even managed a couple of ad libs when she found a dark patch in one of her spuds and as the stage creaked loudly beneath her in Act 2 she literally stopped the show saying “I think I just killed something”.
Other highlights include a highly detailed period kitchen set by Peter McKintosh including two spider plants although it was never explained why Shirley only waters one of them before leaving for the airport. Possibly it was a metaphor.
Oh, and watch out for the stage-hand whose duties after Scene One include not only carrying Shirley’s handbag off but spraying a can of Oust air freshener about to cover the cooking smells. Oh the ignominy. Who says a life in the theatre isn’t glamorous?
- * Phil had a chat with the lovely Miss Syal after the show and she explained she has one of those pop-up touch lid bins in her kitchen instead of a peddle big. (Isn’t this a fascinating insight into celebrity life?) As enchanted as Phil was by Syal and although he doesn’t doubt that her bin lid is kept scrupulously clean he feels he’ll never be able to accept an invitation to the to come dine with the Bhaskars.
- This was the second on-stage mention of Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel in a week. Could this be sneaking up on the inside lane as one of 2010’s theatre trends?
- Phil saw the West End original stage production with Pauline Collins but was disconcerted to find one member of the Whingers’ entourage at this matinee wasn’t even born. Collins went on to receive Olivier and Tony Awards and a Golden Globe Award and Oscar nomination for her role in the film, but the play is better than the film which had to open out the story and show the characters Shirley describes. They are better left to the imagination. Especially Tom Conti.
- We can confirm that the Menier has new, more comfortable benches and there seem to be fewer people crammed onto them.