Chick flick fans of a certain age may recall British actress Pauline Collins’ Oscar-nominated performance as Shirley Valentine in the 1989 movie of the same name.  If you’re like me, you sat entranced watching 40something Liverpool housewife Shirley leave the drudgery of her day-to-day existence for a life-altering holiday in Greece, her traveling companion not her inattentive, unappreciative lug of a husband but contest-winning best friend Jane—who promptly abandons Shirley upon arrival. Befriended by an English couple whose xenophobia proves too much to take, Shirley takes off into the night and into arms of a handsome Greek named Costas.


Shirley Valentine fans familiar only with the multi-award-winning film may be surprised to learn that the Willy Russell play on which it is based is actually a one-woman show, and one that earned Collins London’s Olivier Award and Broadway’s Tony.

It is this solo-performance play that Los Angeles and Orange County audiences can now discover at the Laguna Playhouse in a delightful new production, imaginatively and lovingly directed by Andrew Barnicle and featuring a tour-de-force performance by DeeDee Rescher as Shirley.

Shirley Valentine is that rarity, a one-actor show that happens also to be an honest-to-goodness play, and not one of those (auto)biographical solo performances that make up a small but significant chunk of L.A. theater.  Russell’s play is a fictional, linear, multi-character comedy that works despite (or perhaps because of) featuring just one remarkable performer on stage.


It may take a minute or two for audience members to accustom themselves to Rescher’s signature gravely voice or Shirley’s distinctly Liverpudlian accent (savvily and skillfully softened for American ears with the aid of dialect coach Paul Carne), but the very busy episodic TV guest star (and stage vet) soon has us in the palm of her hands as we in the audience become the kitchen wall Shirley tells her secrets to throughout Act One.

As Shirley prepares unseen hubby Joe the British dinner staple “Chips And Eggs” (something Rescher actually does on the set’s functioning stove), we’re treated to bits of Shirley Valentine wisdom: “I think sex is like Sainsbury’s [a British supermarket chain], y’know, overrated. Just a lot of pushin’ an’ shoving’ an’ y’still come out with very little at the end.” Shirley paints vivid pictures of the folk who surround her, including next door neighbor Gillian: “I’m not sayin’ she’s a bragger, but if you’ve been to Paradise, she’s got a season ticket. If you’ve got a headache, she’s got a brain tumor.” And when an offstage tiff with Joe proves the straw that breaks Shirley’s back, she informs her daughter Millandra, “I’m going to Greece for the sex! Sex for breakfast! Sex for dinner! Sex for tea! And sex for supper! Have you never heard of it? It’s called the ‘F’ plan!”

Since there’s but one actress on stage from start to finish, it’s up to Rescher to create voices for a number of the characters movie fans will recall from the film, with special snaps for snooty Gillian, spoiled daughter Millandra, and (best of all) sexy Greek lothario Costas. Mostly, though it’s Shirley’s own voice, letting us into her heart and soul, and with the superb Rescher front and center, we’re rewarded with abundant laughter and a tear or two thrown in for good measure.

Shirley Valentine The Play looks great, thanks to Bruce Goodrich’s detailed kitchen set in Act One, and a more abstract one in Act Two which lets our imagination fill in the blanks and come up with the Greek paradise of our dreams. Both acts are beautifully lit by Don Guy, who uses his lighting design skills to up the dramatic ante at appropriate moments. Shirley Valentine The Woman looks great too, Goodrich’s costumes (and some hair and makeup tricks) taking her from Act One sedate to Act Two sensational. Sound designer Corinne Carrillo gets high marks, composer Vicky Harris’s “Beyond These Walls” setting the mood to perfection.

Wally Ziegler is casting director, Glenn Powell associate production manager, Joel Veenstra assistant stage manager, Vernon Willet production stage manager, and Jim Prodger Operations director.

I’m generally not a big fan of solo shows, and truth be told, the Laguna Playhouse has a few too many of them in their 2011-2012 season to suit this reviewer’s tastes. Still, every rule has its exceptions, and Shirley Valentine is one of mine. Willy Russell’s words combined with Rescher’s supremely watchable performance make for as satisfying a play as one starring a full troupe of actors. In other words, Shirley Valentine is something quite special indeed.

The Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

–Steven Stanley
October 11, 2011
Photos: Ed Krieger/The Laguna Playhouse

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