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A CurtainUp London London Review
Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita

The terrible weight of the unused life we carry around. — Shirley Valentine
Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita
Meera Syal as Shirley Valentine (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
The Chocolate Factory will be grabbing New York headlines this month with its opening of La Cage Aux Folles but in London there is a tribute to Liverpudlian playwright and author of the hit musical Blood Brothers, Willy Russell, with his two hit plays Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita.

I liked the plays individually but seeing them both on the same day, they interconnect in a most interesting way. Both plays are about working class Liverpudlian woman who break away from their routine existence to create a different life for themselves. Quite how Willy Russell gets so inside the head of his female characters I don't know as his writing is perceptive and personal, as well as demonstrating that famous Scouse wit.

Meera Syal takes on Shirley Valentine, the middle aged woman who throws in a life of drudgery in the Northern city, her life dictated by her husband's meal times, to go to a Greek island where she can please herself. The play is a comic monologue of her conversations with the kitchen wall and later in Corfu with a rock on a Greek beach. She tells us that Shirley Valentine was her unmarried name and it is this young, carefree life that she wants to return to. Her earthy observations are quirky and original and the outcome, "he kissed me stretch marks" is one which makes us want to stand up and cheer.

Meera Syal also will imitate the full range of characters, switching accents and posture to accommodate her impossible daughter Millandra or her friend Brummy (from Birmingham) Jane or the Greek tavern owner Costas in this showcase part. In the first act she cooks egg and chips on stage while the audience look nervously at the deep fat frier knowing how common chip pan fires can be! We don't see her husband lob this meal at her in disgust but we later hear her description of the yolk running down her thighs.

In Educating Rita, Larry Lamb is delightful as Frank, the funny old university professor with woolly edges assigned as an Open University tutor to the outspoken, sparky hairdresser Rita (Laura Dos Santos). This girl is such a breath of fresh air and Miss Dos Santos is a natural. The chemistry between the unlikely pair works very well. As he introduces her to the meaning of literary criticism, she tells him, "You won't think it's any good because it's the sort of poetry you can understand."

We hear too what Rita has to contend with in her private life as her husband wants her to have a baby and is jealous of her new education. Russell's take on the story of Pygmalion works with conversations between the two getting more flirtatious as the weekly classes progress. The designer too allows Rita to leave behind her miniskirts, high heels and make up in favour of the clothes of the intelligentsia, and she adopts a new accent.

With a swift scene break between the weekly tutorials, each time we await Rita's entrance, until the final scene when Rita gets there first and it's alcoholic Frank who is late! Although we can see that Frank is questioning his own jaded existence, Larry Lamb isn't yet allowing this to fully develop. Jeremy Sams' version of Educating Rita is played as a run through without an interval.

Together the plays give an insight into the lives of women and the changes that are possible all wrapped up in Willy Russell's intelligent humour.

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Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell
Directed by Gwen Walford
Starring: Meera Syal
Running time: Two hours with one interval

Educating Rita by Willy Russell
Directed by Jeremy Sams
Starring: Larry Lamb and Laura Dos Santos
Running time: One hour forty minutes without an interval

Credits for the Willy Russell Season
Set and Costume Design: Peter McKintosh
Lighting Designer: Paul Anderson
Sound: David Ogilvy

Box Office: 020 7378 1712?
Booking to 8th May 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th April 2010 performances at the Menier Chocolate Factory, 51 Southwark Street, London SE1 1RU? (Rail/Tube: London Bridge)

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