By Willy Russell
Directed by Roy Surette
Featuring Nicola Cavendish
Presented by The Canadian Stage Company (a co-production with Centaur Theatre Company, Montreal)
Runs until April 18 @ Bluma Appel Theatre
By Matt McGeachy
An ultimately uplifting story of the triumph of living life to its fullest potential, The Canadian Stage Company’s Shirley Valentine is without a doubt the best show of the Toronto season. A one-woman show featuring the inimitable Nicola Cavendish as Shirley Bradshaw (nee Valentine), it is the tale of one lonely woman’s journey to self-fulfillment and a call to arms to each of us to live life to its fullest potential.
The show opens in set designer Anne-Seguin Poirier’s beautifully designed Liverpool kitchen as Shirley is cooking supper for her husband, Joe. As she fries the potatoes and eggs, puts the tea on the kettle, and downs the better part of a bottle of Riesling, we learn that Shirley’s life as a happy homemaker is far from happy, and even farther from the life she dreamed for herself as a young woman. Shirley talks to the wall in her kitchen about her unhappy marriage (“Marriage is a lot like the Middle East: there is no solution!”), her ungrateful children, and the opportunity that her feminist friend Jane has offered her: a two-week holiday in Greece. Shirley, of course, believes that she must decline the offer, which sets up the primary conflict of the play, a conflict between the comfort of unhappiness and routine and the risk of doing what she has always wanted to do and living the life she has wanted to live.
Shirley’s life has never been particularly easy. She was bullied at school by the headmistress and became a rebel, full of envy for her schoolmate Marjory Major. She always wanted to travel as a younger person, but now, at age 46, she’s afraid to leave. Ultimately, she decides to go to Greece after an altercation with Joe over the quality of supper, a chance meeting with Marjory Major — she is now a high-class prostitute — and an encounter with her nosy neighbour, who envies her courage, and gives her a real silk robe to take with her. We begin to see the transformation of timid, lonely Shirley Bradshaw back into the woman she wants to be-Shirley Valentine.
Once in Greece, Shirley Valentine is in full bloom. She enjoys the sun, the sea, the people; yes, she takes a lover, which may provide some satisfaction to us given the jerk husband she left behind, but that’s really beside the point. What we see is the courageous Shirley finally reaching her potential, finally living how she wants to live. Freed of the burdens back home, Shirley evolves into the kind of person each of us strives to be; she becomes herself.
Nicola Cavendish’s beautiful, nuanced performance is utterly captivating. Her masterful timing hits every note of Russell’s script with grace. As Shirley Bradshaw, Cavendish punctuates the sadness with laughter, giving us fleeting glimpses into depression and then pulling us out with a quick joke or anecdote. When talking to the wall-the audience-it feels like Cavendish is directly addressing every single person in the room, one-to-one at the kitchen table with a bottle of wine to share. As she blooms into old Shirley Valentine, Cavendish powerfully embraces the character’s newfound confidence. The lyricism of the entire show is breathtaking.
Director Roy Surette and Nicola Cavendish have created a remarkable and compelling show that reminds each of us of the power of happiness and the joy of taking the risk of living the life you want to lead. As Shirley so poignantly reminds us, “Most of us die long before we’re dead.” After this show, each of us has the courage to live.