Left & cover – Sharon Millerchip. Photos – Anna Kucera
Mother. Wife. Housekeeper. Cook. Shirley Bradshaw has become so accustomed to these roles in the humdrum of her daily existence as a Liverpool housewife in 1986, that she has forgotten what it feels like to be anything else, let alone to be herself… if she could even remember who that was. So subsumed has her identity become by urban domesticity that even without any overt misery in her life, she has come to feel trapped. Ignored. Taken for granted. Invisible. In fact, no one really seems to notice her or care what she thinks or feels, to such an extent that she has literally started talking to the kitchen wall, perhaps thinking that it seems slightly less bonkers than talking to herself outright.
When a pitying and somewhat flighty single friend comes into a bit of money and practically forces on her an airline ticket, insisting that she join her for a fortnight’s holiday to Greece, Shirley initially can’t even find the words to explain how impossible this is. Her husband Joe is not an abusive man per se, but now that the kids have grown up and left home their marital interactions have ossified to the point of barely speaking, beyond his complaining if there is any deviation from the tyranny of his ordered domestic expectations. Dinner at the exact moment he steps in the door. Mince on Thursdays, always. That sort of thing. It isn’t that Shirley fears him, it’s just easier to give in and avoid the arguments.
But after one particularly unpleasant outburst from Joe over a deviation in dinner as an unplanned result of some of Shirley’s subtly dissociative behaviour, she decides that enough is enough. Rather than return the plane ticket to her friend as she’d intended, Shirley decides to throw a lifetime of caution to the wind and go with her to Greece after all.
The only thing is that she decides not to tell Joe.
Although successfully managing to keep her impending departure from Joe, her increasing lack of impulse control leads to a couple of people finding out the big secret, and both leap to the same wowserish conclusion – that Shirley is going without her husband because she’s seeking debauchery. Shirley is bemused, having never much enjoyed sex and having no particular intention of chasing any, and primarily just wants a radical change of scene and some time to herself.
Upon arriving at a beach resort in Greece, Shirley gets just that, but also finds herself living out a fantasy she never realised she had. A casual fling with a boat-owning Greek bar proprietor gives her an erotic satisfaction she’d never realised she was lacking, but more than that is the feeling of freedom. Is Shirley experiencing a mid-life crisis? Is it a mild psychotic break, considering that she’s started talking to a rock on the resort patio? Or is she simply rediscovering herself, a self that she had denied for so long that she doesn’t recognise it anymore. Can it be that Shirley simply needs to get back in touch with who she was before she ever married Joe Bradshaw, and remember what it was simply to be Shirley Valentine?
Willy Russell’s hit play, later adapted into an award-winning film, is a hilarious yet ultimately powerful story of the rediscovery of self. Shirley’s domestic life in Liverpool was not awful, or at least unremarkably so for her times and demographic. But what it has been is a gradual yet inexorable abrogation of self, a giving over to the roles of housewife and mother to the point where a woman who was a once a witty and obstreperous girl has lost all sense of self and started to perceive the bars of her not-so-gilded cage of familial responsibility.
For some, there may be elements of this 1982 play that may seem culturally dated, from the weight of inescapable expectations of domestic marital respectability, or even the fact that 42 was considered tremendously over the hill, yet this will very likely still read as holding true for many women as being just as much their contemporary reality. Even though divorce rates and non-nuclear models of the family have become much more mainstream in the decades since, the decision to suddenly leave one’s life seemingly on a whim and without notice still comes across as something of a radical act. Self-care and self-valuation are much more prevalent concepts today, yet expectations of mothers are still disproportionate to other caregivers, and the sense of the giving over of one’s identity to these roles is sure to resonate with many women from different generations.
Presented as a “one-hander” monologue, the play is inescapably a star vehicle, and regular Ensemble director Mark Kilmurry has certainly chosen well in casting Sharon Millerchip as Shirley. Capturing both the careworn oppression and the wry impishness of her former self beginning to burst back up to the surface, Millerchip is a delight and a powerhouse, carrying the show almost effortlessly on her shoulders. Funny, touching, and filled with moments of surprising pathos, her performance is electric and captivating – this is a character and an actress you simply want to spend time with. It is hard not to fall a bit in love as she tells us her curious, affirming and unexpectedly cathartic story, of a life unlived and wasted away to nothing, yet ultimately one that is regained and reborn.
Ensemble Theatre presents
by Willy Russell
Director Mark Kilmurry
Venue: Ensemble Theatre | 78 McDougall St, Kirribilli, NSW
Dates: 13 May – 9 Jun 2018
Tickets: $73 – $35