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Meera Syal Best Solo Performance 2011


...more than a worthy winner.
Michael Coveney

In February 2011, Meera Syal won the Best Solo Performance for her portrayal of SHIRLEY VALENTINEin theWILLY RUSSELL SEASON.

What’s On Stage Awards is the only prize-giving event for the theatre industry voted for purely by the ticket-buying public. Over 45,000 people voted for their favourites in 26 categories.
Congratulations Meera!

Trafalgar poster for Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine

Tim Pigott_Smith
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Laura Dos Santos and Tim Pigott-Smith
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laura and tim
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Shirley Valentine at the Trafalgar Studios

ith and Laura Dos Santos in Educating Rita at the Trafalgar

Educating Rita at the Trafalgar Studios

Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita at London's Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre

Meera Syal as Shirley during rehearsal for Shirley Valentine

Meera Syal as Shirley

Laura Dos Santos as Rita in Educating Rita

The team, Willy, Geln Walford and Meera during rehearsals

Willy Russell reading Shirley Valentine

The original Everyman Theatre programme cover

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Laura Dos Santos as Rita with Larry Lamb as Frank

Larry Lamb as Frank in Educating Rita

Pauline Collins talking to the Rock

Willy Russell reading Shirley during the original production

All 2010 production photos by Catherine Ashmore

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Shirley Valentine: The Film...

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Pauline Daniels in the 2009 Royal Court Shirley Valentine

Citizen Educating Rita

Frank and Rita played by Mark Kingston & Julie Walters

Michael Caine as Frank


The Willy Russell Season...
Firstly at The Menier Chocolate Factory and then at the Trafalgar Studios (previously the Whitehall Theatre)


Trafalgar Studios

“In criticism” says Professor Frank in Educating Rita, :there is no place for the subjective., sentimental or partisan.” He is, of course, quite wrong, and both Willy Russell’s plays – up West in rep from their pairing at the Menier – speak to even the critical heart.

They’re not easy to pull off, especially the monologue that is Shirley Valentine.  Joy is much harder to express on stage than pain, and this demands both: from quiet desperation over chip pan to triumphant escape and her “romance with herself’.

julyMeera Syal in the part deserves every accolade she received south of the river: her adept mimicry – of husband, daughter; her fellowholiday makers and the seductive but invisible Costas – keeps us well amused, but it is her inner rejuvenation that shines.  Nice symbolism too in Peter McKintosh’s set under a sand carpet and beach furniture of Act 2 that we are left a corner of the Liverpool kitchen lino.  She’ll take that sunshine home.

But it is a line in Shirley Valentine  - the slighter of the two plays – that sets the theme for the tougher, two-handed Educating Rita.  In 1980 it was a bravely prescient howl of rage at the growing cultural impoverishment of the white working class.  Shirley trapped in her kitchen yearning fro Greece, says with ironic pain, “We don’t need no Acropolis, we’re Scousers, we have a joke and a laugh”, but her transformation takes only a holiday.  Educating Rita has a more fiercely questing heroine.  The most wrenching moment is the description of her family in the pub, singing tipsily in the way that patronising liberals find so heartwarming.  Rita wants a “better song to sing”, and here lies pain: she no longer fits in her native world but fears failure in the new one.

"..and this is why Russell plays don’t date, any more than Jane Austin novels – Rita is a universal figure"

She is, of course, a specific creation: a Scouse hairdresser battling through an OU literature course.  But – and this is why Russell plays don’t date, any more than Jane Austin novels – Rita is a universal figure: any of us in a time of transition, increasingly uncomfortable on our old world, but as yet, unproven in the new.

That this universality should strike so strongly is a tribute to Laura Dos Santos’s brooding, baleful, nervy performance, moving convincingly from stroppiness to overconfidence and final equilibrium.

As her professor, a Pygmalion susceptible to his new-fledged scholar, Tim Pigott-Smith takes over the role with moulting grumpy charm and many distressing cardigans.  Perfect.

Libby Purves - THE TIMES


Southwark’s Menier Chocolate Factory continues its seemingly unstoppable assault on the West End with this latest transfer of its double bill of classic Willy Russell plays from the 1980s. While Meera Syal reprises her wonderfully warm and witty solo performance as Shirley Valentine, Jeremy Sams’s production of Educating Rita gets a welcome burst of new theatrical energy with the recasting of the role of university lecturer Dr Frank Bryant, joining the feisty holdover of Laura Dos Santos in the title role of 26-year-old Liverpudlian hairdresser Rita (who is really Susan, but has changed her name as part of her search for a new education and identity).

Tim Pigott-Smith, resembling an equally ineffectual Neil Kinnock, invests Frank with a more fully-inhabited sense of pathos and sardonic humour as a defence against the disappointments of academic The cast at the Trafalgar Studios for Julylife that is nearly as robust as that contained in the bottles of alcohol he keeps secreted all over the bookshelves of his study to turn it into a veritable bottle bank.

Though Sams’s production still finds the juddering bridges between the multiple scenes of Russell’s play clumsy to negotiate, the scenes themselves flow far more smoothly, and there’s now a real, heartfelt rapport between Frank and Dos Santos’s vibrant, feisty Rita. She may famously state that the answer to solving Peer Gynt’s staging difficulties is to do it on the radio, but Dos Santos - who first performed this play there on Radio 4 - helps to solve Educating Rita’s own staging difficulties with her own irrepressible spirit.

And if her tutor Frank advises her character to eschew subjectivity in literary criticism and support her opinions always with reference to known literary sources, I’m not going to be similarly constrained in my dramatic criticism of this double bill: Russell’s plays are now both modern classics about the transformative powers of travel and education respectively, and it’s a pleasure to have them back.

Mark Shenton - THE STAGE


Three months after opening at the Menier Chocolate Factory, the Willy Russell season hits the West End to provide another high profile, surely successful transfer from the Southwark powerhouse.

The pairing of Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita looks more obvious, and more rewarding, than ever. Meera Syal’s perfect performance as Shirley, Saint Joan of the fitted units, exchanging her life of domestic misery for one of Greek Island fulfillment, remains one of brilliant technical accomplishment, now funnier and more moving than ever.

Shirley, directed by Glen Walford, easily out-gunned Rita at the Menier, where the second play had been snipped down to a ninety-minute version; but director Jeremy Sams has restored the full text, and the interval, and the improvement is enormous.

"Tim Pigott-Smith gives a superbly detailed, monumental performance that re-invents the play as a genuine two-hander."

Also, Larry Lamb, shambling and benign though he was as Rita’s Open University tutor, Frank, has been replaced and utterly eclipsed by Tim Pigott-Smith giving a superbly detailed, monumental performance that re-invents the play as a genuine two-hander. Pigott-Smith’s Frank delights in Rita as much as he falls for her, and re-ignites memories of his Old Vic Professor Higgins creating his Eliza before, inevitably, losing her.

Frank’s story, too, comes up in much sharper relief: we care as much about his excessive drinking and frustrated career as a poet as we do about Rita’s progress. The scenes flow more intriguingly, the passage of time is fully plausible (Paul Anderson’s subtle lighting is a key factor), punch lines land properly, and well prepared, at each black-out.

And the chrysalis-into-butterfly progress of Rita is more ambiguous, as Laura Dos Santos, punchy and persistent as the young married hairdresser, cleverly allows us to conclude that her acquisition of the academic lingo, along with the second-hand clothes, is not necessarily all for the best. Her life is enriched, and somehow diminished, by all that exposure to D H Lawrence and William Blake.

Both plays look good on the Trafalgar stage in Peter McKintosh’s designs: Shirley’s kitchen and sun-drenched haven of sand and sky, and Frank’s cluttered office, shelves stacked with books and booze, where Rita comes into her kingdom by denying the expectations of friends and family. These are the most joyous of all feminist plays, brimming with good gags and humanity, and a glorious double whammy for the summer theatre trade.

Michael Coveney - WHATSONSTAGE


I ought to be thoroughly ashamed of myself. I’ll confess that, like a man being dragged kicking and screaming to the cupboard where the vacuum-cleaner is kept, I had criminally little interest in seeing the West End transfer of this Willy Russell double-revival, met with much acclaim at Menier Chocolate Factory back in the spring.

Much as I love Liverpool, much as I admire Russell, the idea of spending hour upon hour watching two Liver birds discover new meaning in their lives, and rising from the sterile ashes of male-dominated domesticity circa the still far-from-emancipated Eighties, looked about as enticing as an invitation to swim the Mersey in midwinter.

Yet these enduring plays about ordinary women on the verge of an empowering breakthrough are, quite simply, unmissably good. In the first instance that’s because in Meera Syal’s Shirley and Laura Dos Santos’s Rita we have two of the finest female performances to be found on the London stage.

Syal is, goodness gracious me, an absolute revelation – warm, likeable, subtly affecting and thoroughly believable as a sort of Scouser Joan of Arc, tied to the stake of housewifely routine before wriggling free on a furtively arranged Greek island holiday. And newcomer Dos Santos brings wonderful fieriness and charisma to the role of lovely Rita, poetic meter maid, who swaps vile hubby and vexing hairdressing for the joys of Eng Lit under the tutelage of boozy OU lecturer Frank (with Tim Piggott-Smith finely judged, too, as the protective-possessive academic).

But this isn’t a case merely of classy acting flattering old-fashioned populism. Russell’s writing, assisted by the odd nip and tuck to keep it sleek, is also a star-turn: the patter is as easy on the palate as the egg and chips that Shirley rustles up before our eyes, yet with rare quantities of saucy wit and vinegary wisdom.

You think you’re just getting cutesy-perky gags – “Marriage is like the Middle East, isn’t it? There’s no solution!” exclaims our Shirley – but the same forthrightness brings stinging revelations too: “My life has been a crime, really, a crime against God and nature,” she laments.

It’s not just questions about class, social mobility, ageism and sexism that steal with a light tread across both plays, but also a profound sense of what goes wrong for all of us, as time goes by. You peer into these windows onto other lives, and see your own world partially reflected back at you too. Highly recommended.

Dominic Cavendish – The Daily Telegraph


The Menier Chocolate Factory

"Meera Syal is simply terrific as Shirley"

Meera Syal as Shirley Valentine

"One of the best parts written in British Drama for a woman"

Even though they date from a lifetime ago, Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita still sound like a breath of fresh air. Never paired before, the Menier revival offers two definitive studies Cast box for Shirley valentine 2010in self-discovery and self-improvement, with two wonderful Scouse heroines.

I saw both plays at their first performances - in Liverpool in 1986 and at the Warehouse (in the RSC days, before the Donmar) in 1980 - and it’s Shirley, directed now, as it was then, by Glen Walford, that strikes me as the better play, the more fluent and dynamic in Shirley’s transformation from Saint Joan of the fitted units to the relaxed tavern regular on a remote Greek island.

Meera Syal is simply terrific as Shirley, combining the forms of monologue, interior reflection, stand-and-deliver comedy and a whole gallery of supporting characters in a rich fruitcake of a performance. With all options exhausted, Shirley goes on the trip for the excitement of not knowing what might happen.

It’s this opening herself up to her own life once more that Syal makes so eloquent and moving.

It’s this opening herself up to her own life once more that Syal makes so eloquent and moving. “He kissed my stretch marks” is a sign of her victory; it’s not the holiday sex with Costas that does it, but the fact that she stood naked on a boat and plunged into waters that last forever.

Shirley talks to the kitchen wall as she cooks her husband’s fried eggs and chips - gosh, they smell good - and decides to go. In the second scene she’s ready, togged up in a blue suit, only about two hours early for the taxi.
And then Peter McKintosh’s design takes us to the island, with the rock replacing the wall and Shirley seizing the moment. “Most of us die before we’re dead” she says, pinpointing the human tragedy while just managing to dodge it.

It’s an intensely moving play, with great jokes, too. Educating Rita is a little more schematic and Jeremy Sams’ production has condensed the two short acts into one, making this even more obvious.

"newcomer Laura dos Santos brings a winning
vitality and depth of feeling to the role"

The scenes are sometimes too short for their own good, the punchlines variable, but the performances by Laura Dos Santos as 29 year-old, bright-as-a-button Rita and Larry Lamb as the shambolic alcoholic tutor are completely engaging, and you get a great sense of life experience out-flanking the prescriptive and redemptive virtues of art and education; to make a distinction proves gloriously unworkable.

Michael Coveney - WHATSONSTAGE

The Willy Russell double bill at the Menier Chocolate Factory is a treat. Meera Syal is irresistible as Shirley Valentine: warm, communicative and bittersweet. She has the audience eating out of her hand, which is probably preferable to sampling the egg n'chips she fries for her husband in the first act (you worry about the fire risk as, talking 19-to-the-dozen to her kitchen wall, she sees the whole meal through, apparently on autopilot, from two raw potatoes and a couple of uncooked eggs). Between acts, a stagehand sprays air-freshener liberally around her kitchen – and at us.

"Meera Syal is irresistible as Shirley Valentine"

What is so lovely is Syal's animation as middle-aged Shirley, who feeds her husband, waters her spider plants and does a runner, invited by her friend Trish on a fortnight's holiday in which she will swap grease for Greece. At the press matinee, when Shirley reappeared on the beach in sexy silk and hot pants, there was a collective gasp of pleasure – as if the audience were sponsoring her transformation. Yet what Syal brings out so movingly is that Shirley is undeceived about her affair with kindly Kostas from the local taverna. She explains: "The only holiday romance I've had is with myself." Willy Russell's play – immortalised by Pauline Collins on screen – is more than 20 years old, yet it is, spryly directed by Glen Walford, as fresh as Shirley Valentine herself.

Educating Rita, first performed in 1980, also retains its charm (though less certainly in places) in an adroitly cut, 90-minute version directed with flair by JCast Educating Rita 2010eremy Sams. Larry Lamb convinces as Frank, a genial, condescending, disappointed professor who hides his whisky behind literary classics. When Rita arrives in his life, she intoxicates him in a new way. His mouth drops open repeatedly – like an amazed goldfish. Rita educates him. But she cannot make him interesting (he is such a poor advertisement for Eng Lit).

Laura Dos Santos catches Rita's garrulous curiosity perfectly. She combines innocence and experience – she does not need William Blake. Or does she? (Russell's underlying question about what education is for is as relevant as ever.) What an invigorating delight it is to see these plays together – female companion pieces – with their linked messages about two women finding ways to become themselves.

Kate Kellaway - THE OBSERVER

It would be easy to dismiss Shirley and Rita as products of a distant age when women's choices were fewer. Easy, but dead wrong, as Rita herself might say. Despite the advances of feminism, the Shirleys and the Ritas are still with us, over 20 years since Willy Russell first wrote about them with an eager and unpatronising vividness.

They are, after all, the direct descendents of Ibsen's Nora, slamming the door on their marriages and walking out into the future to discover their real themselves. However, today's Shirley would probably opt for a breast enlargement and Rita seek empowerment through pole-dancing rather than Shakespeare.

But we are back in the 1980s, so Shirley heads for Greece where she blooms like a flower in the sun, and Rita for the university library where English literature is her nutrient-rich mulch. There is a touch of Billy Elliot about Rita, with Blake standing in for ballet; a hint of Arnold Wesker's Beatie Bryant, too. "My life has been a crime because I didn't live it properly," declares Shirley talking of the unused, untended part of herself. "I want to find myself," cries Rita with evangelical zeal.

Shirley's husband, Joe, and Rita's husband, Denny, are the same "stranger" that Tovald is to Nora. Men are defined by their absence even when they are actually present: Shirley's kitchen wall, with whom she converses, is rather more animated than Larry Lamb's alcoholic university tutor, Frank, in Educating Rita, the perky two-hander directed in slightly stuttering fashion by Jeremy Sams.

The Menier's Willy Russell season offers an opportunity to see both plays, once the staple of every cash-strapped regional rep, in tandem. It's like one big girls'-night-out: warming, soothing and at times raucous and invigorating, if not entirely life-changing. Russell is that rare writer who can make cliches seem new-minted and, in Shirley Valentine at least, has a direct conduit to the bruised but hopeful heart that we all carry around with us. But there is always a cosiness about Russell's easy facility with jokes (the monologue that is Shirley Valentine is pretty much a theatricalised standup set, directed with efficiency by Glen Walford) with Shirley's observations on her marriage ("It's like the Middle East, there are no solutions") and Rita's literary pronouncements ("Howard's End: 100% total crap"; "TS Elliot. His poems are dead long") always playing directly to gallery.

However, the real pleasure of these revivals lie in the portrayals of Shirley and Rita: Meera Syal and Laura Dos Santos fall joyously upon their roles like starving lionesses surprised by an unexpected abundance of meat.

Lyn Gardner - GUARDIAN


Willy Russell’s two comedies of working-class female empowerment conquered the world in the 1980s, spawning career-defining roles for Pauline Collins and Julie Walters — first in the West End, then on film. Even now they are always playing somewhere in the world — but here, at the ever enterprising Menier, is the first time they’ve been in rep together.

Russell has been down from Liverpool to advise his latest Shirley Valentine, Meera Syal — resisting the temptation to make any allusions to her being Asian — and reducing Educating Rita to 100 minutes straight through (plus adding the odd bit of post-1980 argot such as “geeks” and “mingin’”).

Both plays retain their period setting — no computers in the book-lined university study where Frank teaches Rita; yellowing white units in Shirley’s kitchen — but their central dilemmas remain as relevant as ever. We’re still dubious of self-improvement; it’s still uncool to be too hung up on learning stuff at school.

Syal’s show is the triumph. She invests this brilliantly witty monologue with all her considerable comic energy without ever short-changing us on the sadness of a middle-aged life in limbo. As she fries her egg and chips, Syal gives us a lively, locquacious woman who’s slowly let her youthful light go out. Talking to the wall, sipping vino, she’s funny but resigned — “Marriage is like the Middle East, isn’t it: there’s no solution” — before her family’s boorishness finally persuades her to take up a girlfriend’s offer of a free holiday in Greece.

Giving us a good Scouse accent, give or take the odd vowel that hurtles south, she relays Shirley’s domestic frustration and foreign liberation with energy and care. There are plenty of laughs here: “They were that type,” she says of some fellow holidaymakers. “If they’d been at the Last Supper they’d have asked for chips.”

But the reawakening of Shirley Bradshaw, née Valentine, comes with that great Liverpudlian mix of sentiment and cynicism. Yeah, you can’t solve all your problems just by running away, by changing your name (which Rita also does). But these are stories about taking responsibility for yourself, and Syal and the director Glen Walford, who also directed the original in 1986, make it come up affecting, funny and fresh.

Laura Dos Santos gives a fluid, lively performance as the hairdresser who wants to learn about literature — and thus, she reckons, life — in Educating Rita. Opposite her, Larry Lamb looks less convinced by himself as Frank, the ageing academic whose nice bookshelves (strong design in both shows by Peter McKintosh) conceal an even nicer stash of whisky bottles.

But though Jeremy Sams’s production lacks dynamism early on, the short scenes grow persuasive as the drama sprouts between Rita’s rocky path to finding herself and Frank’s bitterness. Does “education” mean losing as much as we gain? Without more sense of Frank’s inner life you’re rarely in much doubt that Rita is taking the right course. But, 30 years on, these snappy lines remain rewarding.


The cult of Everywoman

Willy Russell's Educating Rita reviews itself, really. Not in the sense of being critic-proof, nor yet manipulative. Rather, many a reviewer's stance towards the play - and also his Shirley Valentine, both revived in repertoire at the fashionable Menier Chocolate Factory - will implicitly mirror the attitudes of lecturer Frank as he encounters Liverpudlian hairdresser Rita, dead set on self-improvement through an Open University degree. Russell's plays, we will say, have a refreshing directness, a naive insightfulness . . . and then, like Frank when Rita grows more knowledgeable, we will lament the disappearance of that initial feisty fizz.

Larry Lamb and Laura Dos Santos as Frank and RitaWe may also remark that Russell as a playwright, like Frank as a poet, has produced little or nothing substantial for some years now, and may even be tempted to use the word "quaint" about these works from the 1980s. We will, in short, patronise the bejesus out of both plays and playwright.

Russell can probably live with that.  His musical Blood Brothers is the West End’s longest running musical after Phantom and Les Mis, and since Rita premiered in 1980 it has never been out of production somewhere in the world.  This is all because his writing chimes with ordinary people…. and I mean that not in a condescending way, but in that we are all ordinary people.

These twin portraits of women finding themselves – 42 year old housewife Shirley on her first holiday abroad in Greece, and 29 year old Rita through her literature course – continue to work, not despite truisms such as Shirley’s musings “Why do we get all these feelings and dreams and thoughts if they can’t be used?”, but because of them.  Russell is unashamed of sentimentality, but he knows that its power lies in its honesty.

It’s also grimly interesting to see, up to 30 years on, how un-quaint these tales are in terms of working-class women’s autonomy, neither the hostility of each women’s offstage partner nor Frank’s covert Pygmalion syndrome seem at all dated.

Meera Syal’s Shirley simply gabs affably at us, occasionally directing a remark to the wall of her Liverpool home or a rock on the Greek beach for variety.  Her hand gestures are on the expansive side, but this is after all a solo show, and this trait comes into its own when a more Mediterranean demonstrativeness is warranted.  Syal and her director  Glen Walford  ring some nicely subtle changes, letting us each step on her journey to self-rediscovery as it emerges from the banality if her life hitherto.

As Rita, Laura Dos Santos is similarly friendly, without being as brash as Julie Walters in the film version.  This is a distinctly human Rita.  A human Frank too under Jeremy Sam’s direction.  Larry Lamb is always friendly towards Rita, never spiky, even suppressing behinds smiles his unease and resentment at her growing intellectual assurance.

Frank also remarks, “In criticism there is no place for the subjective”.  But he later acknowledges his error. Subjectively, then, I say that I like these shows, and I think they speak to all of us.

Ian Shuttleworth – THE FINANCIAL TIMES


Scousers were cocks of the walk in the 1980s. In football Liverpool were Emperors of Europe and in theatre Willy Russell was one of the loudest, brightest and most popular voices around.

Now two of his best-known plays have been cheerfully revived - Shirley Valentine starring Meera Syal, and Educating Rita featuring Larry Lamb and Laura Dos Santos.

You can't really get a purloined credit card between them, but the better play is probably Educating Rita.

It benefits from having two characters - a failed middle-aged poet who's turned to drink and teaching English, and a feisty young 'hur-dresser' who's determined to rise above her social station and study literature.

Shirley Valentine, meanwhile, is a monologue exhibiting Russell's talent as a raconteur as he spins the tale of a bored housewife escaping the 'Pool to find her true self in Greece.

In both plays Russell comes across as a cod-feminist who learnt to pamper ladies' egos while working in a hair salon. Still, his formula of selfdiscovery and sexual liberation is a heady one.

There is also great wit and wisdom in lines such as Shirley Valentine's comment that marriage is like the Middle East - 'There is no solution, you just have to observe the curfew and hope the ceasefire holds.'

Moreover, both plays still offer glorious roles. Meera Syal obviously relishes the housewife condemned to making egg and chips for a sullen husband.
Her accent just about makes it all the way up the M6 and even motors across to Bolton when required.

Earthy yet elevated, elegant yet brazen, her curvaceous form braves not just 1980s shoulder pads, but a tight swimsuit, too - her modesty secured by a pink negligee.

In Educating Rita, Larry Lamb captures the dowdy lecturer's lush pathos clothed in corduroy jacket, saggy jeans and cheap brown shoes.
Laura Dos Santos is an exuberantly wise-cracking foil, providing a blast of fresh Mersey air.

She is sweet and emotional, too, as she exchanges high heels and short skirts for the flat shoes and flowing fabrics of 1980s radical feminists. We certainly haven't heard the last of her.

Patrick Marmion – MAILONLINE

WILLY Russell’s comic masterpieces are joined at the theatrical hip. Both are frequently hilarious studies of working-class women struggling to escape rigid environments.

In Educating Rita we have a chirpy Liverpool hairdresser who breaks out of her restricted world by enrolling in an Open University course.

Laura Dos Santos displays impeccable comic timing as Rita and combines this talent with an understanding of the pathos that lies behind a young woman aching for self-improvement.

The change from the tight-skirted conformist into a thinking young woman is impressively handled. I predict a glowing future for the highly-talented Ms Dos Santos.

Sadly, though, Larry Lamb’s alcoholic – whisky bottles hidden in bookshelves – tutor lacks the bitter cynicism the role demands. There was a need to be more shambolic and he even looked too neat – a boozer like him would usually be a grubby mess.

Jeremy Sams directs tightly and Peter McKintosh’s book-cluttered set is straight from uni.

Shirley Valentine is a monologue by a 42-year-old Liverpool housewife whose attitude to life is transformed by a holiday in Greece.

Meera Syal gives a memorable performance as Shirley alone in her sterile, fitted kitchen. She brings a touching anguish to the role – particularly her worry about how her husband will react (not well) when his usual steak has been given to the dog.

She actually fries eggs and makes chips on stage (a wonderful smell wafts over the audience) as she reflects on marriage: “Like the Middle East… no solution.”

Her transformation comes during the holiday (she just goes, leaving Him behind) and Ms Syal transforms our Shirley, helped by sex with romantic Costas, into a new person.

There are some great comic lines which are delivered with polish. Of typical, complaining English tourists she says: “If they had been at the Last Supper they’d ask for chips!”

Although her accent wanders around the north Ms Syal delivers a near-perfect portrayal of a woman rediscovering her soul.


It’s been a terrific year for Willy Russell. The arrival of Melanie C in the musical Blood Brothers reminded many of us that this is one of the greatest of all British musicals, and that Russell was responsible not just for the book and lyrics but also for the outstanding music in a show that has been running for more than 20 years.

Now the Menier Chocolate Factory is honouring him with a season in which two of his best plays, Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, are playing in rep.

Huge popular success such as Russell has enjoyed is a mixed blessing.

Because his work has such broad popular appeal there will always be some snobbish commissars of culture who assume that his work must somehow be of less significance than more rarefied and challenging drama. In some circles of the arts world, entertainment is regarded as deeply suspect.

"It seems to me however that Russell is a writer of genuine nobility of spirit, with a rare gift for empathy, observation, and sheer humanity."

It seems to me however that Russell is a writer of genuine nobility of spirit, with a rare gift for empathy, observation, and sheer humanity. He has a particular knack for getting inside the minds of women, evidenced in both these plays, and a moving and persuasive belief, that lives can be transformed for the better.

Educating Rita strikes me as a truly great play, in its Pygmalion like account of a spunky Liverpudlian hairdresser trying to enrich her life by going on an Eng Lit Open University course.

The humour is superb, with a succession of blissful one-liners and cultural misunderstandings, but the relationship that develops between Rita and her alcoholic tutor, who comes to need her more than she needs him, is also deeply moving.

Unfortunately Jeremy Sams’s production isn’t in the same league as the film version starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine. Though she looks a little too young for Rita, who is meant to be 29, newcomer Laura dos Santos brings a winning vitality and depth of feeling to the role. Larry Lamb however cannot compete with memories of Caine’s performance as the tutor. He never quite captures the hungover despair and self-loathing of the alcoholic, or suggests the way Rita has become the one bright light of his sterile life. As a result the later scenes when she begins to move beyond his sphere of influence aren’t as touching as they should be. Lamb needs to dig deeper.

I have no reservations at all however about Meera Syal who gives a heart-catching performance as Shirley Valentine, a Liverpool housewife in a dead marriage whose horizons have become so limited that she talks to the kitchen wall for company. The mixture of anxiety, humour, wonder and mischief in this monologue as she describes a trip to Greece where she discovers that life offers far more than she believed was possible proves completely infectious. This is a lesser play than Educating Rita, but in Syall’s lovely performance, and Glen Walford’s beautifully judged production, it will glow in the memory of all who see it.

Charlie Spencer - DAILY TELEGRAPH

Big Willy down Memory Lane

It’s just as well that the productions of Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita were so vibrant at the Menier yesterday; I was in serious danger of drowning in a wallow of nostalgia and good company.

I saw both plays at their first ever performances — Shirley at the Liverpool Everyman in 1986, with Noreen Kershaw, and Rita at the RSC’s Warehouse (the company’s London studio before it became the Donmar) in 1980, with Julie Walters– and they both come triumphantly alive once more.

Mind you, I was always a bit sniffy about Rita. I’d loved Willy Russell’s broader canvas Liverpool comedies and felt Rita was a bit of a narrowing, and the structure wasn’t quite right. It still isn’t, despite director Jeremy Sams’s tinkering.

But Julie’s Rita encapsulated an entire era for me at the Liverpool Everyman and in the bolshie, lively, brilliantly alive fringe and regional theatre of the day; it just seemed a bit colonialised in Covent Garden.

I think Laura Dos Santos is delightful as Rita, but the stand-out performance of this bill is definitely Meera Syal’s.

I had no reason to suppose she was this good, but she totally exceeded my lack of expectations. She’s brilliant. And she’s just become my favourite actress, alongside Maggie Smith, Miranda Richardson and Nancy Carroll…..

.... And how wonderful it is to have these Willy Russell plays back in town, as a complementary make-weight to the continuing success of Blood Brothers at the Phoenix. 

Michael Coveney – WHATSONSTAGE