>SHIRLEY VALENTINE by escape theatre limited

>reviewed by fong liling

>date: 15 sep 2004
>time: 8pm
>venue: the arts house
>rating: ***1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


About five minutes after most of the audience took their seats, Karen Tan emerged from behind the curtains. Shortly after rearranging the orchids on the dining table, she proceeded to the kitchen, taking out all that was needed to fry chips. For a moment there, it seemed as if the audience had paid to watch Tan peel potatoes for an hour and a half. But then the lamp on her kitchen tabletop flickered and the play officially began.

Written by Willy Russell, SHIRLEY VALENTINE scored at the West End, Broadway and not least, at the Oscars, courtesy of a movie adaptation. Russell's middle-aged housewife is suffering from a mid-life crisis, talking to the wall when her husband is out working. Her life is terribly mundane. It revolves around her duties as a wife (going to the market, cleaning the house, cooking for her husband) and as a mother (comforting her now-grown-up children when they come running back home needing pampering). Her husband goes to the extent of telling her specifically what is to be served to him on which day, and expects his dinner to be on the table the moment he steps into the house. With an empty nest, Shirley's marriage seems to have come to a point of stagnation, and it is almost as if there is nothing for her to live for any more. It is not until her friend, Jane, invites her to Greece for a holiday that Shirley feels she is given a chance to a get new lease of life. However, she is bound by the social norms imposed on women in England even in the 1980s.

Russell has created a charming piece. He presents the poignant realities of life through the eyes of a character who is often overlooked and undervalued. Russell uses Shirley to emphasize a problem that most people will face at some point in their lives: the routine that Shirley has to go through every single day has left her life without excitement or purpose, eventually leading to her feeling unfulfilled and jaded. At certain moments of the play, Shirley questions her identity, and wonders where her old self has gone to, because she simply does not experience anything that will allow her to form fresh memories and emotions. Subtly and humorously, Russell shows how much unused life there is in people, and how it is all too often wasted away. Although local audiences may not be able to appreciate the British humour in all its fullness, the themes of the play remain relevant to all.

>>'Airy-fairy and a little romanticised, yes, but who doesn't need that spark of hope in their lives sometimes?'

Tan fitted perfectly into her role as Shirley Valentine. As the only actor, she did not try to make her presence overbearing; instead she seemed to be completely at ease with herself. She managed to carry one of theatre's most well known female characters almost flawlessly. In a play where the audience sees nothing but the same person onstage the entire night, I daresay she managed to capture her audience's attention most, if not, all the time.

But there were a couple of blocking problems in evidence. In the closing moments of act one, Shirley moved her suitcase upstage left from the foot of the dining table to where the deep fryer was. Conceivably this could be due to her excitement and panic that she was really leaving for Greece, but to me it seemed as if the suitcase was deliberately moved just so that Tan could sit there. And in act two, while telling of her friend's abandoning her so as to have a rendezvous with a man she met on the plane, Tan kept going around in circles which made her look rather cartoonish.

But these are quibbles, and more importantly, I liked how the play incorporated visual, aural and even olfactory effects to complement Tan's performance, at the same time blending all these together so as to maintain the subtlety of the piece. Lighting designer Teo Lay Hoon managed to bring out the change in the tones of sunlight at the beach as the second act progressed. Sound designer Darren Ng created appropriately nostalgic sound effects which played in the background while Shirley reminisced about her colourful past. They gave the performance texture, though I am not too sure if it was deliberate that they were not entirely audible. And of course, credit goes to Director Mark Waite for applying for the license to cook "chips and egg" onstage to add to that warm touch of home. It actually made the audience hungry, and some of them asked for it during the interval.

I had had a hectic week leading up to this play, but I must say what I watched that night truly refreshed me. Shirley stepped into the unknown, found freedom, and left the audience with an optimistic ending. Sounds airy-fairy and a little romanticised, yes, but who doesn't need that spark of hope in their lives sometimes?