There was an air of quiet assurance around the fine old Guild House on Saturday afternoon. We felt we were part of something successful. It was in the warm familiarity of the faces, in the electric current of promising expectation. “We are ready for something good,” it said, and that’s why we were all there. It was in the buzz of conversation and occasional laughter in the genteel Edwardian salon where we gathered to find a drink and wait for the theatre doors to open. Light–hearted, that was it, and the warmth of the place after the chill of the Fall afternoon out of which we’d stepped. And what was this promise? It was the Guild’s current show, Willy Russell’s neo–classic 1986 one–woman masterpiece, “Shirley Valentine”. I was there to review the play, this effort you’re now reading being that very review. If you capture my companionable, relaxed mood, and I hope you do, it is probably because it wasn’t opening night. I was there to see the fifth performance: Other press had spoken, the buzz was out in the social network and in public places, that this was the show to see, and I am delighted to report here my reaction to it.
Yes, it’s a one–woman show, but to this reviewer there are really two stars, Director Jo Skilton and actor Barbara Fisher. I can’t find anything concrete to report in Miss Fisher’s acting. It just isn’t in evidence. Fisher is Shirley Valentine. Her art is evident only in its result, not in its makings. Truth rules in the moments, the beats, the pace. Fisher is an actor who doesn’t appear to act because she finds her performance in the truth of her character. Why else would anyone even try to act this role if it cannot be achieved on that seriously basic principle.. be true to the play, to the writer; bring your training, experience, your craft, put them confidently at the disposal of your director and together make one mind with the play? There’s no magic here. It’s an algorithm of intelligence, experience, training, and, quite frankly, of knowing the ropes. And there’s the reason it’s a two–hander in reality, this play. As unobtrusively as Fisher finds her Shirley, as craftily does Skilton plan the course of the writer’s story through the action of the play. They are supported by a production team of quite exquisite talent. Produced by the unflappable Margaret Houghton, with an award–deserving set designed, crafted, and overseen by the estimable Graham Clements, wonderfully sensitive lighting designed by Gabriel Pinto, a perfect soundscape from the eminently creative Michelle Spanik, and the whole taking us on this voyage to other times and places. Stage Manager Liz Kinnon together with ASM Maureen Rowan keep the ship on course, their terrific crew of techies, operators, and special artists busily obeying orders and doing their fine jobs.
Hands up those of you who don’t know Willy Russell’s story of Shirley. Well, not many of you, it seems. And hands up those who haven’t already seen at least one other production of this play. Right. Roughly the same. Now put your hands down, relax, take your seats and let Director Skilton and her leading lady Barbara Fisher take you along on a journey of human self–discovery in our modern age, as good as it gets in theatre. Be ready to laugh. A lot. Be ready to reflect and feel. A lot. Yes, indeed, thrill to Shirley’s climactic Christopher Columbus arrival on the shores of life. It’s a “hit f’r us”, and if you don’t know what that rhymes with, get over to the The Guild this weekend and find out. V