Preview: Shirley Valentine

Jodie Prenger is restoring Shirley Valentine to its one-woman show status by starring in the title role

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Last year was the 30th anniversary of the debut of Willy Russell’s beloved stage play Shirley Valentine and, to mark this milestone, a new production is touring the UK. It’s occasionally overlooked that the original play is actually a one-woman show. The 1989 film version opened the piece up, but the show itself is just Shirley, her thoughts, regrets, hopes and dreams, with only a kitchen wall to sound off to.

It’s a demanding role to take on, but Jodie Prenger is up for the challenge. “I’ve grown up knowing, watching and loving Shirley Valentine,” Prenger says. “It’s really warm, northern, funny. It’s just genuine, and I think that’s what Willy Russell’s so marvellous at – creating relatable, genuine characters. It’s a really honest piece, and I think sometimes the hardest thing to do on stage is to be genuinely honest.

“I love it when you hear people in the audience go: ‘Ooh yes, you go on, girl!’ It’s nice that they have that relationship with the show. But the thing people always say to me is: ‘Who’s playing the Greek fella?’ I go: ‘It’s me, it’s me!’”

Russell remains directly involved with productions of his plays. In this instance, Glen Walford, who originally commissioned and directed Shirley Valentine back in 1986, is directing the revival too. “Yeah, no pressure there!” laughs Prenger. “But they’ve both been absolutely phenomenal. I was so nervous meeting them, but it was like I’d known them for years.”

Russell confessed to Prenger that one of the key inspirations for the show was Billy Connolly and the particular way he spins a yarn. Prenger is clearly in awe of Russell’s own storytelling gifts, and specifically his flair for female dialogue.

“I still to this day don’t know – and I think it’s just put down to genius – how he writes so amazingly well for women. All that stuff in this script, it’s just what you would say.”

The new production stays true to its original 1980s roots, though it does bring in a new element: the live on-stage cooking of egg and chips.

“It’s kind of like smellovision, so I do warn people to come on a full stomach. That smell of chips – and proper chips, y’know, like your nan used to make – it does make people hungry.”

Blackpool-born Prenger first came to fame as a contestant on the TV show I’ll Do Anything, and has since gone on to win a flurry of major stage roles in shows including Spamalot, One Man Two Guvnors and Tell Me on a Sunday. As a character, Shirley Valentine starts off as someone who’s lost her way in life, but the same doesn’t seem to be true of Prenger.

“No, I never get time. When I’m doing shows, I get home probably once a week if I can, and I just spend time with my animals. That’s my happy place, it really is. But then, we all get stuck in a rut, don’t we? We all think ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’. Shirley Valentine did, and I think it’s great that we echo that message out to people – always take a chance, always take a risk. Because you never know what’s around the corner, do you?”

Shirley Valentine is at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 24-29 April, then touring 

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