Thoughts & Musings

What’s in a Name? Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine (1986)

© 2017 by Eileen Warburton

The Humanities Post-Show Talkback will be after
Sunday, March 19’s matinee performance.

In the post-war era of British theatre and writing there was a movement slapped with the label, “the angry young men.” Working-class playwrights like John Osborne and Arnold Wesker, novelists like Alan Sillitoe and Kingsley Amis, all raged against the limitations of their social class and a sense of entrapment in British society. Even while being obsessed with upward mobility, they scorned anything highbrow as “phoney” and took pride in their lower-class accents and mannerisms. Their narratives never resolved their problems and the text was usually just anger, satire, and destruction. But thirty years or so after the dominance of the “angry young man” in British theatre, playwright Willy Russell came along with the “unhappy mature woman” who has played by the conventional rules of her social class only to come up empty. Like the rootless, working-class characters in the “angries,” Russell’s characters feel stymied and trapped. But these women, like Susan White in Educating Rita (1980) and the lone protagonist of Shirley Valentine, are aspirational women. They want more, they seek change, and they get it. The satisfying conclusions of Russell’s “happy endings” have often been criticized by the snootier London reviewers, but, in fact, they represent a different, but accurate, kind of truth. Susan and Shirley learn that their identities and self-respect are in their own hands. Society, dull husbands, lack of education, undermining families: none of these are actually responsible for holding these women back. It’s not someone else’s fault and no one else will save them. Both women begin and end as isolated individuals. Their paths, however, have taken them from loneliness to a new acceptance and confidence centered in the self. It’s no accident that each woman ends by resuming the name she was born with, satisfied to be herself.

The successful re-creation of oneself is familiar territory to Willy Russel. He was born in 1947 in Whiston, outside Liverpool to a working-class couple with little in common. His father, an alcoholic, worked in the mines and factories, eventually ran a fish and chip shop, was erratic and borderline abusive. His mother, a nurse, dreamed of better things and made Willy her confidante. He started work as a hairdresser at 15 and soon ran his own shop. Meeting the family of his new wife, Annie Seagroatt, at 19 encouraged him to return to night school and qualify as a teacher. Soon he was writing full-time. His first success was about the Beatles, culled from his experience as a fan long before they were ever the famous band they became. Educating Rita (1980), his second, earned him the first awards and film opportunities out of many since. Out of 23 plays, novels, and music albums, Russell is best known for plays like the long-running Blood Brothers (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1986). His persistent theme—that grew out of his own experience–is always about people embracing change and surpassing their limitations by determination and hard work.

Russell doesn’t stray far from his own working-class roots as he creates his characters. He is also a musician who is justly celebrated for his keen ear for dialogue, the sardonic wit and punchy rhythms of the folks of northern England. For Shirley he invented the female monologue so that Shirley could deliver her stream-of-consciousness life tale without having to deal with the presence of other characters. The play is considered a tour de force for actresses, a kind of aria that presents the emotional journey of one exceptional middle-aged woman who reclaims her life.

This essay has been sponsored by the generous people at
Ocean State Urgent Care of Barrington

The opinions expressed in this essay
are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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