Review – Shirley Valentine, Menier Chocolate Factory

Monday 29 March 2010

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.

Theatre bloggers steadfastly refuse to get their own gimmicks. From left to right: Phil, Tyro Theatre Critic, Meera Syal, There Ought To Be Clowns, London Theatregoer, Andrew.


Rating score 4-5 full-bodied

20 Responses to “Review – Shirley Valentine, Menier Chocolate Factory”

  1. webcowgirl Says:

    What? The TTT was there? And he’s about 6’2? And I could have met him? AARGH and here I was practicing songs for ShowOff!

    Sadly, without such elite company, I’m unlikely to go as I hate monologues. Not that I wouldn’t mind some nice fresh chips at the interval, but still.

  2. TheTTCritic Says:

    I’m a touch under 6’2 actually (before you give me any height complexes). The photo does seem to make me look freakishly tall though… it turns out the blogging frat mostly come from Lilliput.


  3. Phil K Says:

    Apologies, I took the photo. It was an effort getting all you blogging-tyupes in shot!

    The Stage hand was also actually quite tall, now you mention it ….hmmmmmmm………

    I’ve got a criticism here it’s where exactly do the Menier buy their spuds from? The ones Ms Syal had huge black bits in them, which she had to disapose of (in yes – the Pedal Bin – calm down Phil) whilst ad libbing “Well he won’t want those, will he?” Spuds aren’t expensive for Gods sake, give her better props to work with!!!!

    • anon Says:

      The potatoes are brought from a local shop… they are not the ones served in the restaurant- I promise! (the ones in the restaurant were too big and took too long to cook in rehearsals)

  4. Dickie and Butch Says:

    Will be avoiding this for a few reasons, firstly it’s a Willy Russell. And Willy Russell, apart from looking rather like Noel Edmonds, can only do one thing in his plays, and that is writing about northern women. Yawn!

    Secondly, we are seeing a vile, unwanted trend returning to our theatres in recent years the return of the “scripted ad-lib”, and, even worse, ‘false corpsing’. I am in no doubt at all that the ad-libs mentioned will crop up every few nights in one form or another, to give each audience that ‘special feeling’ of connection. Seen most recently, and irritatingly, in Hairspray.

    Glad you see though that you had a good time (Dickie and Butch’s invite must’ve been lost in the post) – we’re off to see and review Paint Never Dries© on Friday, so a second opinion to follow on our blog.

    PS. Dickie broke the news of the Menier’s new seating policy weeks ago boys!

    • 1. Sorry that you find northern women boring. We don’t.

      2. They weren’t “scripted ad-libs”.

      3, “Dickie broke the news of the Menier’s new seating policy weeks ago boys!”

      Is it pedantic to point out that you can only really “break news” if someone subsequently reads it?

      And you wonder why you’re not invited to things.

  5. Kat Says:

    That comment was so waspishly bitchy I’ve been quite put off my lunch.

    I’ve just realised I’ve got Willy Russell confused with Willy Rushton, thinking, “Oooh, he used to read the Asterix audio books when I was a tiny giant.” That would have been many skills.

  6. Dickie and Butch Says:

    Not to be confused with Salman Rushdie. Glad you loved our post xxx

  7. Dickie and Butch Says:

    1) I find northern women boring in plays. I live in the north, but when you’ve seen one Russell, you’ve seen them all.

    2) How do you know this?

    3) We’re doing rather well actually, near-on a thousand views in less than a month by the end of March. Your reviews are superb, they would continue to be so if people stopped reading. News can be broken without fanfare.

    The invitation comment was a joke with your companion continuing from a private conversation.

  8. A Clown Says:

    And back to the malt loaf…
    This has gotten better on reflection, and I now totally concur with your 4-glass score. I am not a real fan of monologues myself but I found Meera Syal engaging throughout.
    And I still can’t get over how well-dressed the set was, every detail was brilliantly observed down to the contents of the bread bin and cupboards. Huge fun.
    The Lilliputian Clown

  9. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    “Companion”? oh lawks a-mercy..
    Presumably as in Companion of Honour?

    I hope you don’t feel the same way about the northern women in Coronation Street.

  10. Dickie and Butch Says:

    Hi Phil – no, we don’t watch things like that.

  11. J.A. Says:

    Sorry, I’m lost. When was Topping replaced by Dickie?

  12. Hmmm. I’ve got to wait until May (yes May!) before we see it, but I am really looking forward to some good prop handling. I’m sure Ms Syal will multitask beautifully.

    And here’s to Northern Women. Some of them are lovely. I married one! (and she’s a splendid example of the genre).

  13. J.A. Says:

    You’ll be pleased to know that the pedal bin is now being used properly, though the effort to change this has resulted in her accent now wandering across the whole country.

  14. Tina Says:

    Anyone who can influence the thoughts of women to escape from drudgery from any grim town up north has my vote..

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