Shirley Valentine at Duke of York’s Theatre review: superb Sheridan Smith breathes life into this dated play

 (Helen Murray )
(Helen Murray )

Here’s a perfect match between a star and a comfy but creaky star vehicle. Sheridan Smith has great warmth, impeccable timing and a rare ability to connect with an audience as an equal.

Willy Russell’s award-winning and hugely popular 1986 monologue about a Liverpool housewife finding herself in Greece now looks like a museum piece. It requires Smith’s specific talents to make it work and she turns it into a charming showcase for them. With almost any other actress I suspect it would be unwatchably patronising and old fashioned.

We first see Shirley cooking egg and chips in anticipation of her husband Joe’s return from work, chirpily discoursing on life to us and to the kitchen wall, the usual recipient of her confidences (this is one of the devices in Russell’s show that now feels cringeworthy). She’s funny, in a pert Scouse way. “Marriage is like the Middle East… there’s no solution,” she quips. “Sex is like Sainsbury’s… overrated.” Beneath the jauntiness her life is bleak.

The scant magic went out of her relationship soon after “the first horizontal”. Joe is a sexist dinosaur who brooks no deviation from the everyday routine, including mince for dinner every Thursday. Their grown up kids are troublesome and ungrateful. Shirley’s never been abroad and only recently learned how to pronounce the word “clitoris”, a subject she discusses in a way that probably seemed daring in 1986.

 (Helen Murray)
(Helen Murray)

Then a divorced friend buys her a ticket to the land of squid and olives, intent on widening her horizons. Where the first half of the play brims with working-class Liverpudlian caricatures, the second is full of clichés about smooth-talking waiters and oafish Brits abroad, and about Shirley’s realisation that she’s wasted her life. She’s all of 42 by the way.

Russell’s play is a grimly fascinating reminder of an era when male writers regularly described unfulfilled, parochial female lives and were praised for their empathy and insight.

Full marks to Smith, then, who sells the material with utter conviction. Her performance as Shirley recalls two of her greatest stage roles, blending the vitality of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde the Musical with the fractured romanticism of Doris, the barmaid married to a Polish Count, in Rattigan’s Flare Path, which won her the Evening Standard’s Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress in 2011.

At one point in Matthew Dunster’s serviceable production Shirley pauses in her pinny at the cooker, a bottle of Crisp ‘n’ Dry in hand, caught by the memory of her exuberant younger self: “She used to laugh a lot, didn’t she?” It’s unbearably mawkish but with a tilt of her head and a softening of her eyes Smith turns it into a moment of true pathos. It’s great to see her back on stage, even in material as dated as this.

Duke of York’s Theatre, to June 3; buy tickets here