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No Longer a Desperate Housewife

By Archives February 10, 2009

Shirley Valentine wouldn’t fit in with the Desperate Housewives of Wisteria Lane. In fact, she’d probably tell them to sod off.
Unlike the ladies of the hit ABC show, the title character from Shirley Valentine leads a plain life. She doesn’t go to fancy parties or have romantic escapades; her job is to cook and clean and keep her husband and grown children happy. And she’s sick of it.
We meet Shirley as she pulls a bottle of wine out of her fridge before cooking supper for her husband. Symbolically placed at the centre of the small kitchen table is an empty wine glass. Shirley’s life is not half full; it’s just plain empty.
Shirley begins talking to the wall, her only true confidante aside from her feminist friend, Jane. As she chops potatoes for the night’s supper of eggs and chips, Shirley reveals how dysfunctional her marriage really is.
“Marriage is like the Middle East – there’s no solution,” Shirley says of the years she has spent with her husband. “Sex is like a supermarket,” she continues. “A lot of shoving and pushing and still you don’t come out with anything.”
In this comedic style, Shirley tells the story of her life: how she was once the strong and independent Shirley Valentine and how she became the oppressed Shirley Bradshaw through marriage.
Everything changes when Shirley decides to go on a trip to Greece with Jane. There, she rediscovers romance and joy; but most of all, she rediscovers the true Shirley Valentine.
As Shirley, actress Nicola Cavendish is a smash, from her spot-on Liverpool accent to her impeccable comedic timing. Cavendish is a rare performer who can carry a one-person show while always keeping the audience engaged. The same could be said for Willy Russell’s play, which hasn’t lost any of its verve since its conception 20 years ago.
Shirley Valentine is set in both England and Greece, a challenge that was beautifully met by set designer Anne-Séguin Poirier. Her Liverpool kitchen is a cramped space, equipped with a functional fryer (that Shirley uses in the show to fry chips), as well as a stove top and a fridge. The Greek set is a bright beach scene, complete with lounge chairs, mountainous rocks and a clear blue sky.
The only quarrel would be with costume designer Phillip Clarkson, who dresses Shirley appropriately as a meek housewife in Liverpool, but not as a freed woman in Greece. Cavendish is forced to wear an ill-fitting bathing suit made worse by the addition of high-waisted jean bloomers. This is unfortunate because Shirley is supposed to be liberated and carefree, but she is dressed as an uncomfortable middle-aged woman trying to cover up as much as she can.
Ultimately, Shirley Valentine is a feel-good play that will have you smiling and cheering Cavendish to the finish line. Shirley Valentine wasn’t a show, it was a journey. One that should most definitely not be missed, even if there’s a brand-new episode of Desperate Housewives on.