Someone Else’s Valentine

While sitting in the Bluma Appel theatre at the closing night of the Canadian Stage Company’s production of Shirley Valentine last night I had this odd sense that I had seen the show somewhere before. There was something especially about a British woman talking to a wall, and then a rock that was foggily familiar. And perhaps, as a young girl in Halifax, at some point I did catch this show, some of them have become a little fuzzy and I didn’t always keep every programme and sometimes (when attending school matinees) I didn’t even get a programme at all! Regardless of whether I had seen the show or not, in all I found my entire Shirley Valentine experience to be rather bland, and kind of sleep-inducing.
It was an experience that was not shared by the rest of the theatre, and that was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the show. It is obvious that this show is not targeted at me, and I appreciate and respect that. The audience was predominantly filled (and it was packed) with members of the baby boomer generation who roared and howled with laughter (sometimes amid tears with applause) throughout the entire show. This audience was having a ball. I was annoyed and irritated that I couldn’t have a ball too. Is that (playwright) Willy Russell’s fault? (director) Roy Surette’s fault? Martin Bragg’s fault? Or, my own fault?
This play is a one-woman show which explores the liberation of a working class wife and mother from Liverpool, England and her life-altering holiday in Greece. The play premiered in 1986 and I found that twenty-three years later it has become dated, its themes old fashioned and its jokes clichéd. I cannot say that no women in the world live like Shirley Valentine or face her situations, because there is no doubt they do, but the play doesn’t function as a rallying warrior cry to women. It just made me feel sad for her, and glad to be me. I think a large part of this is generational, I have never been a middle aged woman so I cannot relate with familiarity or nostalgia to her experiences, and I am still young and idealistic enough that my vision of my own future does not involve becoming stuck in a domestic rut with a man who fell out of love with me decades ago.
There is no doubt that Nicola Cavendish gives a great performance as Shirley Valentine, her voice and characterization is strong; however, I did find that Russell didn’t write a play rooted enough in the specific for Cavendish to fully show off her talents. The story is predictable, and the characters that inhabit Valentine’s world are all stereotypes. This means that Cavendish’s portrayal of the gossiping next door neighbor, the strict British headmistress, the obnoxious teenaged children, the hot Greek sex god, the male chauvinist pig, and the chain-smoking bitter single best friend were all pretty stereotyped as well. I couldn’t help thinking back to Maja Ardal’s brilliant play You Fancy Yourself which also was a one woman play that featured a strict headmistress, male chauvinists, next door neighbors, and a chain smoking character, but they all came so alive- and it was in the writing. The writing allowed Ardal to inhabit these rich, multifaceted, unique people with names and personalities that were truly their own. Russell paints with such general strokes you never get a sense that any one is a person, only a prototype that you recognize, mostly from television commercials and late night stand up acts.
There was one moment that I absolutely loved, however, one image that I thought was unique and poetic and beautiful. Shirley Valentine speaks about the early days of her marriage and how she and her husband were painting the kitchen yellow and they ended up painting each other. She goes on to relate about how they took a bath together, which ended up being like bathing in vanilla and she washed his hair and kissed his wet head. That image has stayed with me. There’s something lovely in that.
Shirley Valentine spoke to the people in the audience of the Bluma Appel theatre who could relate to it; the people who saw themselves and their lives being reflected back, if only in shadows. Martin Bragg wrote in his notes in the programme that this show has certain nostalgia for him, and I respect that. I don’t think it speaks in the same way to younger generations as it does to the baby boomers, but not every show needs to be for us. The world doesn’t revolve around the 20 and 30somethings and that’s entirely fair.
I was worried, to be perfectly honest, and I hope this doesn’t come across as being elitist, or like the utterly clueless young person I may be perceived as being, but I did worry that there is a percentage of theatergoers who only ever seen the gentle, moderately dated, nostalgic plays like Shirley Valentine and miss out on something far more poignant or political, something with a pounding pulse you can’t help but feel coursing through your entire body. Then, I overheard the woman in front of me, a woman of the baby boomer generation who had clearly been enjoying this show, fervently pitching the Berkeley Street Canstage season (“the edgier shows,” she said) to her friends beside her. “Stuff Happens,” she stressed, citing the Studio 180 show from last year, “was really, really, REAAALY, REAAALLY good.”
And with that, my Grinchy heart grew three sizes that day. There are a lot of things that threaten the theatre in this country, but our theatergoers are smart. As long as people continue to be informed of their theatrical options, the arts will flourish and thrive in this country. I have faith.
As a side note, as Shirley Valentine was the last Canstage show of Marty Bragg’s tenure as Artistic Director, I would like to publically thank him for his many years of service to the theatre of Toronto and to wish him nothing but the best for his future endeavors.

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