Review: Brilliant Jodie brings Shirley to life at Milton Keynes

Jodie Prenger in Shirley Valentine
Jodie Prenger in Shirley Valentine
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I was a little apprehensive when the casting of Jodie Prenger as Shirley Valentine was first announced as I felt the part so brilliantly played by Pauline Collins in the 1989 film could hardly be bettered… but that was until now!

When I first saw the 37-year-old Blackpool-born lass star in the touring production of Calamity Jane at Milton Keynes Theatre back in November 2014, I wasn't overly impressed. Ok, I knew Jodie was a good singer but after last night's performance, she proved beyond any doubt that she can certainly act.

She first came to prominence when she won Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh's 2008 BBC television I'd Do Anything open competition to claim the part of Nancy in the revived West End production of Lionel Bart's Oliver.

Since then she has made numerous appearances on both radio and television and has been in the West End in One Man, Two Guvnors and Spamalot while her most recent solo success was in Lloyd Webber's Tell Me On A Sunday which, back in the day, originally starred Marti Webb and latterly, Lloyd Webber's second wife, Sarah Brightman.

In fact Tell Me On A Sunday must have been a huge influence on Jodie as, being a one woman show, it obviously helped in preparation for Shirley Valentine which is once again a single actor production.

As our bored, middle-aged Liverpool heroine, Jodie really shines. She delivers the wit and humour of Willy Russell's clever writing and she comes across so well that you feel as if you're sitting in the kitchen with her!

As a 42-year-old Scouse housewife, Shirley is so bored that she regularly talks to her kitchen wall while preparing her husband's dinner. With her two children grown up and having flown the nest, her humdrum life is a real bore – as is her spouse! – and she's left wondering what life is all about?

However when her friend Jane offers to take her on a freebie trip to Greece for a couple of weeks, Shirley keeps it a secret and, unbeknown to her other half, she secretively packs her bags ahead of an exciting adventure that totally changes her life.

The play itself is brilliantly written by Willy Russell whose best known offerings have also centred around Liverpudlian-based characters – Educating Rita, Our Day Out and the wonderful Blood Brothers – while Shirley Valentine really brings to the forefront the drudgery that many women feel when their long-term marriage is stagnating and loveless.

Cooking "chips and egg" every evening – surely it should be 'egg and chips' especially when he was expecting steak! – hasn't been a total fiasco for 'our Shirl', for the awards have simply rolled in over the past 30 years, those BAFTAs and Academy Award nominations being fully deserved both in the West End and on Broadway.

While the story is set in the 1980s, Shirley's kitchen has all the usual trappings – along with a chip fryer – while on the counter is a bottle of white wine and glass, the dialogue being both highly entertaining and brilliantly delivered.

Jodie is really on top form and added to her amusing delivery, we learn of Costas and his intensions towards her aboard his brother's Greek boat... and then there's that old chat up line regarding her sexy stretch marks!

The first act did seem a little long although it is punctuated with some cracking well rehearsed punchlines. However it's a little strange midway through as the lights go out briefly and two stage hands nip on to clear away the 'chips and egg' which Jodie actually prepares and cooks amid the story telling. However she then reappears dressed in a blue two-piece with a white wide-brimmed hat along with her suitcase as she awaits her taxi to the airport.

The second act see her stretched out in a swimming costume on a Greek beach having been deserted by Jane. In fact her flirty friend immediately disappeared for four days after meeting a fellow male passenger on the outward bound flight!

Then comes the description of Shirley's romantic liaison with Costas before her last minute decision run from the airport's check-in desk and to stay on in Greece and work at the local bar… and that finally brings her husband Joe to his senses and he arranges to fly out to try and win her back.

Following a truly outstanding performance as Shirley, Jodie certainly deserved her standing ovation as she's now unquestionably a very fine versatile actress indeed.

Glen Walford was the original director of the play some 30 years ago and she has returned to take charge of this Adam Spiegel production in which the scenery is simple but effective, especially that craggy rock in Greece which Shirley talks but says it doesn't understand her as it's Greek!

Shirley Valentine plays Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday (April 1) at 7.30pm each evening with matinees at 2.30pm on Wednesday and Saturday. Tickets cost from £15 and are on sale from the box office or on 0844 871 7652 (calls are 7p per minute and booking fees apply) or at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes