Though separated by a decade in age, both of Willy Russell’s female leads in the plays revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory are, given the chance, vivacious, energetic women, but are trapped in lives that smother them.
When the audience first meets Meera Syal’s Shirley Valentine, she is sporting a shapeless floral smock and cardigan, peeling potatoes and talking to a wall. She reminisces to herself, remembering both good and bad, but wondering when the old ambitious her disappeared and her new role as serving wife and mother began. Offered the opportunity to fulfil a childhood ambition to travel the world, or at least take a holiday to Greece, Shirley contemplates leaving her husband behind for two weeks in the sun
Laura Dos Santos’s Rita, in the second of the Russell double bill, has already made the choice when the audience first meets her as she bursts excitably into the office of Larry Lamb’s alcoholic university lecturer.
Both women are held back by life and family. Both women desperately want to unlock the potential they undoubtedly have. Both women want to find out who they are and who they can be.
It is a universal sentiment – haven’t we all felt, at times, that life is passing us by, that we haven’t fulfilled ambitions, that someone or something is holding us back? – which is half the reason both lead characters are so appealing. They are also as warm and pleasing as feeling the sand between your toes on Shirley’s Greek beach.
Syal has the boldness and size of character to comfortably hold the stage for the entire two hours of her solo performance, making it look as easy as cooking egg and chips which, incidentally, she also does. Her comic class is there for all to see in impersonations of her young son stealing the show at the nativity, her snobby neighbour and her Brummy friend Jane. But when not pumping up the laughs like a lilo it is the moments of quiet sadness that make her tale so touching.
Dos Santos, by contrast, has less subdued sorrow and more anger at her ‘uneducated’ situation. She is a firecracker of a Scouse hairdresser eager to learn more and better herself but unaware that this fresh thirst for knowledge is what makes her so charming in the first place. Lamb does a good job of letting Dos Santos shine, suggesting his own simple excitement at a student without cynicism and his sadness at her possible assimilation into the regular sweater-wearing ranks.
While both plays are synonymous with the 80s, nothing about these new productions date them. The necessity of finding yourself amid the many pressures of modern life is a subject that will never go out of fashion.