Theatre review: Shirley Valentine by Theatr na nÓg
Sarah Morgan Jones
The story of a woman reaching middle age and realising there must be more to life than this is neither new nor unusual. When the kids have grown and flown, and the wall offers more witty conversation than the man who was once the love of her life, and when he shoves the egg and chips across the table into her lap, then enough is probably enough.
This is where Shirley, nee Valentine, finds herself in the much loved and familiar story currently touring Wales under the stewardship of Y Consortiwm Cymraeg, with a new Welsh language version.
As her friend Jane fortuitously drops a prize-won ticket to Corfu into Shirley’s hardworking, worn-out hands, she hesitates, doubting that she might actually deserve two weeks in the sun, doubting that her selfish kids and the husband Joe, who doesn’t know the difference between a cooker and a fridge, could possibly survive without her.
But as Joe kicks off when he hears that his Thursday night steak is in her employer’s vegan dog, meaning eggs are on the menu, she rears up out of her rut to seek some sun, some fun and some time to herself.
Felly… There she is, about to be gone, and here is this reviewer, just at the start of a dysgu Cymraeg journey, watching the powerhouse that is Shelley Rees bring Willy Russell’s heroine to life…in Welsh.
Larger than life, sunny and sassy and a skilful storyteller full of expressive asides and plenty of sauce, Shelley Rees commandeers the stage with a confidence and charm that is irresistible.
Barely pausing for breath, she confides in the audience and the wall, while going about the automatic business of actually peeling the spuds, really cooking the chips and perfectly frying the eggs, simultaneously showing remarkable restraint on the Chardonnay, all in time for the moment when her husband walks through the door.
Running the gamut of emotions from her endearing optimism to moments of infectious sadness, we become so wrapped up in the minutiae of her life that it felt that if she did fall prey to her doubts, the warm and captivated audience would have upped sticks and driven her to the airport.
The Shirley from Liverpool, who first emerged from the brain of (and was briefly played by) Willy Russell in the 80s, was an everywoman, rapier sharp, plate spinner of merit, full of love and desire and determination, yet knocked back by routine and disappointed to realise that the ‘Christopher Columbus’ spark her husband once proudly proclaimed as his high point has now fizzled and flopped.
Transporting her to Merthyr is a completely natural step – she is an everywoman, after all, and can be found everywhere – and being underestimated and unfilled is a universal feeling. But the Shirley we see in Shelley Rees may well be disappointed, but she is not downtrodden, and with the unlikely allyship of other women she portrays, including her schoolgirl nemesis Branwen, and the town gossip Gillian, neither is she alone.
That this story is still so relevant in 2022, unchanged and undated in essence since Shirley first found her feet in 1986, and that ‘Shirley Valentine syndrome’ is an instantly comprehensible phrase, is as disappointing as it maybe commonplace.
But the message is clear – whether it’s Corfu or a new you, hold on to the dream, be brave where you can, and whether you take it or make it, know what an opportunity looks like.
Theatr na nÓg (one of the four partners in Y Consortiwm Cymraeg) assured all comers that even if we were Welsh learners, we would be able to enjoy this show. They created an app replete with a synopsis of each act and a list of useful vocabulary, with little interviews in Welsh but bilingual questions to help us along. So, I booked my ticket, did my homework as per the app, and nervously set out along the dark and wet A465 for the beautiful Theatr Soar.
My Welsh is at about a level two on Duolingo, I have a few units of Mynediad under my belt, many years of hearing Welsh around me and just about being able to hold onto the tails of a conversation.
A few minutes in, I was coping and found myself laughing in all the right places, and then, as I relaxed and let it wash over me, I realised that they were right! This Welsh learner was sitting amongst the fluent, really enjoying the show!
And when I found myself moved to tears at several points, I realised I wasn’t just enjoying it, I was understanding it. No surtitles, no whispered translation, just immersion.
Of course, the preparation helped and it being a familiar story made it easier, but the performance before me and the accessible Welsh, peppered with more words that I knew than I realised, meant that although some details flew over my head, I understood more than enough to have a lovely time.
Wales has no shortage of superb small theatre companies producing ambitious and high-quality drama, in Welsh and in English, sometimes in both. Neither does it want for a full range of unique and characterful theatres run with passion and humanity, in touch with local audiences and so often worth the journey from further afield.
This production, translated by Manon Eames, directed by Geinor Styles and steered safely out into a warm azure sea by a team of skilled women and men has it all.
Be brave, don’t be afraid, know what this opportunity looks like.
A new collaboration, Y Consortiwm Cymraeg was set up by award-winning Theatr na nÓg and three venues to present high-quality accessible Welsh language theatre. They also aim to produce a programme of participation for communities to improve their language skills and also engage in arts and culture on their doorstep.
Theatr Soar in Merthyr Tydfil, The Welfare in Ystradgynlais and Awen Cultural Trust have joined forces with Theatr na nÓg to rekindle the vitality and value of their venues to their communities.
The Consortiwm’s wheels were already in motion pre the COVID pandemic, but as cultural centres locked down, it was thought that the need for these creative hubs was even greater–to help safeguard the future of Welsh language in the valleys, and to support a thriving valley community beyond the Covid Pandemic.
Full tour dates and learner resources can be found here
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.