Nicola Cavendish as Shirley Valentine in MTC production of "Shirley Valentine" (Barbara Zimonick)
Here's why the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's production of Shirley Valentine is such a resounding success:
Okay, maybe I should expand on that. There's a scene in this production - starring Nicola Cavendish, who's played the role in more than 600 performances over 20 years, including a run at MTC in 1992 - where our heroine, Shirley Bradshaw (nee Valentine) is peeling potatoes at her kitchen sink. Once peeled, she washes them - and then, in a quirky but entirely authentic motion, shakes the excess water into the potted plants on her window sill.
It's a tiny gesture, one you could easily overlook - but it's the attention paid to details like that in Roy Surette's production (he also helmed the '92 version) that make Shirley believable, loveable, and an absolute delight to spend 150 minutes with.
And it's essential that we like her, given that there's really not much action in Willy Russell's monologue. Although still vibrant and more than a little saucy, Shirley is middle-aged, middle-class, and stuck in a marriage that doesn't even reach middling - it's long since lost its spark. So when the opportunity comes up for an exotic trip to Greece, Shirley finds herself with a chance to redefine - and hopefully rediscover - herself.
No, it's not exactly an earth-shattering concept. But Cavendish and Surette masterfully find every laugh, and every nuanced bit of pathos, in Russell's witty (if somewhat overlong) script. Much of the first act plays like a stand-up routine, with Shirley riffing on topics like marriage ("It's a bit like the Middle East, in't it?" she quips. "There's no solution") and underwhelming sex (her depiction of this - aided by a cutting board - is hysterically funny). There are still plenty of laughs in the second act, though it shows us a more reflective - and vastly more confident - Shirley. And in her performance, which is a true tour-de-force, Cavendish not only makes Shirley's journey credible, but has the audience rooting for her all the way.
It's a performance easily big enough to fill up the enormous MTC stage, but Cavendish has terrific help from Anne-Séguin Poirier's sets (a claustrophobic-but-detailed kitchen, and a spectacular Greek beach), Luc Prairie's subtle lighting, and Phillip Clarkson's descriptive costumes.
Add it all up, and this Valentine is easy to love.